Addressing Invisible Disabilities in the Workforce

graphic depicting several invisible disabilities such as hearing, speaking, medication effects.

Invisible disabilities are a significant yet often overlooked aspect of the workforce. According to the CDC, 61 million adults in the United States (26%) have at least one disability, and about 33 million of these individuals have disabilities that are not immediately apparent, such as chronic pain, diabetes, autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, and arthritis. Many of these invisible disabilities disproportionately affect older adults although they can affect adult workers of any age. Despite the protections offered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), many employees and job candidates with invisible disabilities are hesitant to disclose their conditions, fearing discrimination and unfair treatment. Many employers are unaware of how their practices may exclude these individuals.

The Current State of Hiring Practices

On a recent episode of the Fast Company podcast, “The New Way We Work,” Ludmila Praslova, a professor of psychology at Vanguard University and author of “The Canary Code: A Guide to Neurodiversity, Dignity, and Intersectional Belonging at Work,” shed light on the challenges faced by neurodivergent individuals in the job market. Praslova highlighted that 40% of neurodivergent people and 85% of autistic college graduates struggle with unemployment due to outdated hiring practices. She emphasized the need to modernize these processes to align with today’s workplace requirements.

Rethinking Hiring Processes

Praslova advocates for a shift from traditional hiring practices to more inclusive methods that focus on skills rather than superficial traits. She argues that every step of the hiring process should be directly linked to the skills necessary for the job, rather than relying on stereotypes or pop psychology expectations. For instance, the assumption that lack of eye contact or fidgeting indicates dishonesty is unfounded and disproportionately affects autistic individuals. Instead, the emphasis should be on actual job performance and outcomes.

The Importance of Skills-Based Hiring

As companies begin to remove degree requirements in favor of skills-based hiring, it’s crucial to extend this reevaluation to all aspects of the hiring process. Praslova points out that our current conventions favor individuals who excel at self-promotion rather than those who are genuinely skilled at the job. This bias not only excludes many capable individuals with invisible disabilities but also undermines the overall effectiveness of the hiring process.

Beyond Legal Requirements: Proactive Inclusivity

Too often, companies view accommodations for disabilities as mere legal obligations rather than opportunities to create a more inclusive workplace. This relegates a segment of the population to the ‘others’ category. Praslova notes that many changes that benefit individuals with non-apparent disabilities, such as remote work, flexible hours, and varied communication methods, are also valued by the general workforce. By focusing on outcomes rather than outdated performance proxies—such as being physically present in the office from 9 to 5 or having a camera on during Zoom calls—companies can create a more supportive and productive environment for everyone.

Involving Employees in Policy Making

The key to building a more inclusive workplace, according to Praslova, is to involve employees in policy-making and offer various options for how work can be done. This approach ensures that the needs of individuals with invisible disabilities are considered and accommodated, leading to a more equitable and productive workplace.

Invisible disabilities are a prevalent but often neglected aspect of the workforce. By modernizing hiring practices, focusing on skills rather than superficial traits, and proactively creating inclusive policies, employers can build a workplace that works for everyone. As Praslova emphasizes, inclusivity is not just a legal requirement but a fundamental shift towards valuing diversity and ensuring that all employees can contribute meaningfully to their organizations.