Invisible disability stigma driving workers to hide conditions

Posted 3 years ago by Emily Erickson
Discrimination in the workplace can potentially lead to those with an invisible disability to hide their condition from prospective employers. [Source: iStock]
Discrimination in the workplace can potentially lead to those with an invisible disability to hide their condition from prospective employers. [Source: iStock]

In the lead up to International Day of People with Disability (IDPwD) on Thursday 3rd December, employment service provider atWork Australia has shared tips and advice on how to reduce disability stigma in the workplace and raise awareness that ‘not all disabilities are visible’.

Disability discrimination is responsible for the highest volume of complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission each year. 

Discrimination in the workplace can potentially lead to those living with an invisible disability to decide to hide their condition from prospective employers in fear of discrimination and social stigma.

This year, the theme for IDPwD is ‘seeing the ability in disability’. With this in mind, it’s important to note that not all disabilities are visible and therefore conversations should be widely encouraged, promoting empowerment and inclusiveness. 

Research shows that mental health conditions are at least twice as prevalent than they were in non-pandemic circumstances. With another 700,000 Australians said to live with a brain injury and approximately 3.95 million experiencing hearing loss, invisible disabilities are affecting more people each day. 

“Invisible disabilities, or hidden disabilities, are those that are not immediately obvious including mental and/or neurological conditions, impairments to the senses, chronic pain and issues that restrict movement,” says Shaun Pianta, atWork Australia DES Ambassador and Disability Awareness Trainer. 

“For example, people who live with a mental health condition may not ‘appear’ to have a disability but much of their daily life is affected by their condition. It’s the same with chronic pain, or diabetes. As a result of these conditions not being instantly apparent, this can lead to a multitude of misconceptions, judgements and sadly, discrimination,” he says.

In a recent study on the people who experience the highest rate of employment restrictions, those living with ‘invisible’ disabilities reported highest, with 91 percentexperiencing mental ill health, 88 percent for emotional and nervous conditions and 78 percent experiencing chronic pain.

Building resilience at work and beyond

Sharah Smith, a client of atWork Australia, lives with depression and anxiety which at one point led to a severe social phobia and agoraphobia. 

“I was unable to leave my house alone, and even if I had company to help me, the anxiety would be unbearable. I was beginning to be unable to go grocery shopping. I lost contact with friends which led to loneliness and increased depression,” she says.

Ms Smith says she worried that people would think she was ‘lazy’ and just needed to ‘get over it’.

“When I began speaking with atWork Australia however, I began to trust them and the process due to their understanding of my illness.”

 “I eventually became comfortable around my Job Coaches who encouraged me to try new things, like going to appointments and catching public transport alone.”

 Ms Smith says she attended a resilience group atWork Australia hosted and regained some of her social skills. 

 “They also referred me to counselling and coached me before interviews, even driving me to meetings and my first day of work. They also helped me gain my licence, which was a requisite for my current job.” 

 Ms Smith now works at atWork and says she loves her job. 

 “While I still struggle with tasks such as making phone contact with clients when there are other people in the room, my experience as a client and living with an invisible disability has benefited both myself and my clients, as I am able to empathise with their situations and service them in a way that helps their progress,” she says. 

Creating an inclusive society

 In celebration of IDPwD, the Department of Social Services has produced anumber of resources which can encourage workplaces to promote and acknowledge the achievements and contributions of people with disability. 

While many organisations will still be working remotely, businesses can get involved online, celebrating staff members who may be living with disability and inspiring other staff members to join in the conversation.  

Disability Employment Services (DES), an Australian Government initiative delivered by atWork Australia, aims to support businesses by offering bespoke inclusive recruitment advice (from development of position description through to retention of staff) based on their needs, and to connect them with job-ready candidates. 

atWork Australia works with prospective employees to prepare them for interviews, while assisting employers with the hiring and onboarding process through screening candidates based on skills, abilities and organisational fit. Once in place, the DES provider continues to monitor the placement and offers assistance to both employer and employee over the first year, and beyond if required.

“Our aim is to shape a society and the future of work that is inclusive for all people living with disability, injury or a health condition,” says Mr Pianta.

“That starts by recognising that not all disabilities are visible and that no matter the condition, we need to remove stigma to create better relationships for all.”

For more information about DES through atWork, visit their website.