Stigmatization and other barriers, especially toward people with invisible disabilities, drastically influence how these communities ask for what they need in the workplace—or more often, don’t ask at all.
However, when employees are dissuaded from requesting accommodations for fear of judgment or shame, they’re left without the resources necessary to do their jobs.
In order to support the success of people with all abilities, it is important workplaces foster a culture of allyship so staff members feel comfortable asking for accommodations and communicating openly.
To help organizations in this pursuit, this piece highlights the basics of invisible disabilities, how self-advocacy and open communication help overcome stigma, and the importance of allyship in the workplace.
What Is an Invisible Disability?
The nonprofit Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA) describes an invisible disability as a physical, mental, or neurological condition that impairs a person’s senses, movements, or other activities, but is not necessarily visible from the outside. This can include autism spectrum disorders, Crohn's disease, diabetes, dyslexia, Asperger syndrome, cognitive impairments, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression, to name a few examples.
It is important to note that a person can have a disability and not identify as disabled. Perhaps someone with an invisible disability works part or full time, but experiences challenges with physical exhaustion, chronic pain, or fatigue.
Each individual experiences their range of abilities differently, and workplaces should meet staff’s unique needs to help accommodate them as best they can. However, to know what those needs are, people have to feel comfortable articulating them and being open about their abilities, reinforced by a culture of workplace allyship.
“We cannot help you if we don’t know what you need,” encourages Joanna Del Orbe Mejia, Disabilities @ Work Program Associate at Salesforce, where she works to support access and disability programs and remove non-inclusive language and other accessibility barriers at the customer relationship management (CRM) software company. “The more information you can give, if you feel comfortable talking about it, the more resources and support you’ll receive.”
Overcoming Stigma With Open Communication & Self-Advocacy
Of the 61 million adults living with disabilities in America, 10.8% have a medical condition considered to be invisible, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analysis titled “Disability Impacts All of Us.” According to a journal article published on health and disability news site Disabled World, 96% of people living with chronic medical conditions experience some form of invisible illness.
Given the nature of invisible disabilities, one’s ability levels are not necessarily obvious by outward appearance, alone. Someone might be living with a disability, even if it doesn’t appear that way on the outside.
However, this is exactly how people tend to judge others’ ability levels: how the person appears externally.
These assumptions are not only frustrating but can be incredibly taxing on the health and well-being of those living with an invisible disability, by presuming they don’t appear to need accommodations when they might.
The IDA quotes disability expert and author Joni Eareckson Tada explaining it this way: “People have such high expectations of folks [with invisible disabilities], like, ‘come on, get your act together.’ But they have such low expectations of folks like me in wheelchairs, as though the thought is that we can’t do much.”
Such assumptions can also drastically influence how people living with invisible disabilities self-advocate for their needs—or more often, decide not to.
Fear of stigma has been found to breed feelings of anxiety, stress, and lead to a lack of disclosure to avoid judgment. Stigmatization discourages people from seeking accommodations when they need them.
“It's not going to be easy. It’s like opening Pandora's box,” Del Orbe Mejia says, “but when you see the results, the empowerment that gives you—because you’re embracing it and disability is not something that’s stopping you, because you’re talking about it—you will feel really different, and having the support you need will allow you to grow in your career.”
Del Orbe Mejia experienced this personally when, diagnosed with Crohn’s disease three years ago, she made the transition from her nursing track to an internship with Salesforce.
She was also navigating learning about her disability for the first time. The chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is often accompanied by extreme fatigue, loss of energy, body aches and pains, nausea, diarrhea, and loss of appetite, among other symptoms. According to the CDC, an estimated 3.1 million adults in the United States have been diagnosed with IBD, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
“In order for a person without Crohn’s disease to understand how tired I feel, you need to be awake five days in a row,” explains Del Orbe Mejia. “Then, you have an idea how tired I can feel when I have a flair-up. Going through it, I’m just providing as much communication as I can because my experience is not another patient with Crohn’s disease’s experience.”
Similar to many others living with an invisible disability, Del Orbe Mejia remembers having to cut through an exhaustive amount of red tape to attain accommodations when she needed them—from copious paperwork to medical professionals verifying her disability.
This made joining the Salesforce team feel like a breath of fresh air.
Its Office of Accessibility encouraged Del Orbe Mejia to talk about her disability with coworkers, told her about the resources available to her, and supported her in asking for them.
“[My manager] knows how to support me,” Del Orbe Mejia tells InclusionHub. “She's guiding me like, ‘Hey, don't be afraid to ask. What do you need? How can I support you to be successful in your work? How can we align our work together?’ I think it is that sense of communication and a safe space Salesforce creates.”
Del Orbe Mejia has paid this forward, always being positive and encouraging her coworkers to be open about their abilities and self-advocate for any accommodations they might need—even if it’s uncomfortable.
“It was what encouraged me and gave me that strength to talk about it. That, yes, I have a disability and I'm proud of it, because you haven't stopped me. And yes—I'm about to cry—and, it's not that it's about a disability. I just want to share this with everyone,” she explains. “I'm so grateful of the work I have, and I'm so proud of the work I have been doing and the team I’m in. People value me because of the things I have done and not because of my disability.”
A Culture of Allyship in the Workplace
To foster an inclusive workplace, it is important people feel comfortable asking for the accommodations they need.
Ultimately, this is made possible when leadership prioritizes a culture of allyship with the disabled community.
Being an ally involves a commitment to learning, understanding, and advocating for the needs of employees to support their success and promote changes.
For instance, impactful decisions that demonstrate such allyship might include removing ableist language from use, promoting employee resource groups (ERGs), hosting trainings, offering remote work opportunities, and more.
However, these changes take root when each person shows respect toward one another in their actions.
Simply asking, ‘What do you need?’ or ‘How can I support you?’ to a fellow coworker can make all the difference in helping them feel they’re not alone, Del Orbe Mejia explains.
As each person’s abilities and disabilities show up differently, these interactions help create a safe space where people can acknowledge their own experiences and be accepted by someone else.
“We’re gonna get there. It takes time,” Del Orbe Mejia says. “It’s having training and education on what disabilities are and how you can be an ally so employees can feel like, included, they have a voice, their ideas are taken into consideration. I feel like after that education, all other things will fall into place.”
To overcome the barriers and stigma that particularly surround invisible disabilities, it is important organizations foster a culture of allyship that encourages workers to advocate for what they need. When people of all abilities can feel comfortable being open about those needs, they can finally have them met, truly belong in their communities, and thrive in the workplace.
Salesforce is a founding partner of InclusionHub, a resource for digital accessibility, committed to helping businesses prioritize digital inclusion. To learn more about creating a culture of allyship with the disabled community, visit Salesforce’s a11y website.