6 minute read 1 Aug 2019
Diverse coworkers helping each other

How organizations can advance inclusion when differences aren’t visible

By

Karyn Twaronite

EY Global and EY Americas Diversity & Inclusiveness Officer

Driver of diversity and inclusiveness programs to provide equitable opportunities and experiences for all. Passionate advocate for creating a sense of belonging.

6 minute read 1 Aug 2019

From weighing disclosure to communicating about adjustments, EY offers inclusion strategies for non-visible disabilities.

Disability is just a kind of difference. And, as with other kinds of differences, some people may be uncomfortable with disabilities. They could be unsure how to behave in an unfamiliar or unsettling situation. Or the person’s disability may require them to change their way of doing things.

At EY, we see diversity as a strength — and research bears out this perspective. Diversity is a source of insight and adaptability, generating better business ideas and high-quality service for our clients. Differing abilities are part of that healthy diversity.

EY can help organizations — including colleagues, leaders and managers and employees with non-visible disabilities — think through some of the challenges that can arise around working with non-visible disabilities to create an environment where all people feel comfortable and enabled to do their best work. 

Understanding non-visible disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act states that a person may be disabled if he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity, has a history of disability or is believed to have a physical or mental impairment that is not minor nor transitory.

Non-visible disabilities cannot be seen and are not obviously apparent. Three common categories of non-visible disabilities are:

  1. Chronic health conditions and illnesses: diabetes, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome
  2. Sensory: hard of hearing, low vision, mobility limitations
  3. Mental health and learning: depression, anxiety disorders, ADHD

Adjustments vs. accommodations

An accommodation is a workplace or process modification that supports an employee to be more productive. It’s necessary — not a personal preference or privilege. Although legally accurate, “accommodation” suggests that the person with the disability is receiving a favor. Instead, we prefer the term adjustment. It captures the idea without suggesting favoritism or special treatment.

  • The Job Accommodation Network is a free, government-sponsored website that gives an overview of specific disabilities and discusses possible adjustments.
  • Whether you’re designing workspace at your office, hosting an event or welcoming visitors, it’s essential that the facilities are accessible for everyone. This checklist can help guide your decisions.

For employees

Deciding whether to reveal a non-visible disability can be difficult. You may be concerned that people will view you differently, or limit your opportunities.

But if a disability affects your proficiency, there’s risk in not disclosing. A reasonable adjustment may help you work differently, so the disability doesn’t undermine your performance. Sometimes people delay disclosure until performance significantly declines; by then, it may be hard to rebuild your reputation and relationships.

Leading practice organizations are committed to handling disability disclosures confidentially. At times, it may be helpful to share limited information with colleagues and/or supervisors to avoid misperceptions, build trust and enlist their support with implementing reasonable adjustments. It often takes a team effort for an accommodation to work well, and some degree of openness helps unite everyone to support that effort.

Communicating with colleagues

If your adjustment — such as a change in work routine — affects the day-to-day operations of your team, let coworkers know what to expect. If you don’t want to discuss your disability, share about the modification itself — not why, but what.

If asked a direct question, reply in a general way. Restate the question in your response and focus on how the work will get done, not on your condition.

For example:

Q: Why do you have to take so many breaks?

A: I work better when I take regular, planned breaks. If you’d like to know when I’m available, I can share that schedule with you.

If you are Deaf or hard of hearing, share this guide to communication with colleagues.

Five ways to minimize negativity

When adjustments affect how a team or group works together — requiring different methods of communication, changes in how work is assigned or deliverables are produced — colleagues may express discomfort or resentment.

Here are some proactive steps you can take to minimize negativity:  

  1. Be specific. Uncertainty causes discomfort. Provide as much information about changes as possible.
  2. Be appreciative. Thank people often — not because making changes is doing you a favor, but as recognition of the effort involved.
  3. Be helpful. If coworkers make special efforts to support you, do the same for them. 
  4. Be collegial. Build positive relationships. If coworkers are invested in their relationship with you, they’ll more readily support you.
  5. Show your dedication. Be a strong contributor to discussions, meetings and group projects. Volunteer to take on tasks.

“Before I begin working on a project, I give my colleagues tips on how we can communicate most effectively since it’s not obvious that I am hard of hearing. I find that if I ask them at the start to do things a certain way, it’s easier and more efficient for everyone.”

For leaders and supervisors

As a leader, your goal is to harness the diversity of your team to produce the best possible work. But the nature of non-visible disability poses special challenges. Along with the need to maintain confidentiality, the adjustments you introduce may pose unwelcome changes to the broader team. Take proactive steps to help everyone adapt, communicate and make their best contributions. 

A disability is a personal matter. If an individual chooses not to disclose a non-visible disability, it’s inappropriate to ask directly. However, it’s entirely appropriate to share observations about behaviors that impact work performance or professionalism.

Communicating with the team

When an adjustment prompts changes to a team’s routine, members may express frustration and resentment about the perceived inconvenience.

Here’s how you can prevent backlash before it starts:

  • Clearly communicate new arrangements and address any uncertainties. Solicit comments and questions. Provide a summary email to ensure that everyone has the same understanding.
  • Discuss the facts of the adjustment, not the disability itself. Avoid using the word “accommodation.” It compromises confidentiality, and may raise questions you can’t answer without violating privacy or trust.
  • Create a positive team dynamic. Emphasize that, to work effectively together, team members must recognize and adjust for individual needs. Model flexibility and acceptance in your approach.
  • There’s a tendency to judge people with non-visible disabilities based on one’s own difficulties: e.g., the person with chronic fatigue syndrome isn’t disabled, just tired, and “we’re all tired from these heavy workloads.” Counter this mindset by recognizing all team members’ needs. When people feel they’re receiving appropriate consideration, they’re more likely to express cooperation.
  • Show your support for the individual with disabilities. Treat them equitably in assignments. Solicit their comments during meetings. This isn’t about showing favoritism, but about demonstrating that you value the person’s contributions.
  • Assess the impact of the adjustment not only on the individual, but also on the team. Review at regular intervals. Provide opportunities for everyone to give input — not on the adjustment, but on how things are working overall.

“As a supervisor, when someone asks me about another person’s accommodation, I just say that the arrangement is the most effective way for that individual to work. I state it as a fact, pure and simple. No more explanation is needed.”

Only when everyone is supported to do their best work can teams function at their highest levels. That’s why it’s in everyone’s interest to respect all differences — both the visible and the non-visible.

One in four Americans lives with a diagnosable mental illness or addiction each year. At EY, we’re working every day to grow our culture of caring, where each person can do his or her best work. Mental illness is complex, but offering your support doesn’t need to be. In four simple steps, we tell you how.

Summary

People with disabilities represent the largest and fastest-growing minority in the US. As the workforce grows more diverse, organizations face a mounting challenge: how to provide every employee with a consistent experience, access to development and growth opportunities and a bias-free workplace? In this article, EY offers practical guidance and strategies for advancing the inclusion of people with non-visible disabilities — and harnessing the proven power of diversity.

About this article

By

Karyn Twaronite

EY Global and EY Americas Diversity & Inclusiveness Officer

Driver of diversity and inclusiveness programs to provide equitable opportunities and experiences for all. Passionate advocate for creating a sense of belonging.