By Emma Brookes
4 November 2021
The hidden challenges of non-visible disability
One in five people in the UK is living with a disability. That’s 14.1 million people, with around seven million people being working age . It is estimated that 80% of this group live with non-visible disabilities; I am one of them.
There are many different types of non-visible disability, and the effects can be life-changing. The condition might be physical, mental or neurological and the impact for each individual can be very different. Hidden impairments are one of this year’s Disability History Month themes, which runs from 18 November to 18 December. You can find out more about their online launch event HERE.
My own story is one that I have only recently started telling publicly. I have had to challenge myself as to why I have kept my conditions hidden, not exactly secret, but not widely known. I had to be honest and admit that I was fearful of how it would be perceived. If people knew I suffered from anxiety and depression, would I have less professional credibility? Would my peers and colleagues judge my attendance differently if they knew I had a chronic pain condition? I have had nothing but positive feedback and support in the aftermath of sharing my experiences. However, I appreciate that I may be lucky in this respect.
From an employment perspective, non-visible disabilities may contribute to a lack of disclosure. Disclosure, however, may have increasing importance, especially if the government proceed with the planned consultation to look at voluntary and mandatory workplace transparency rules, including reporting on disability for large employers.
This consultation is a key element of the National Disability Strategy, launched in July 2021 by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The strategy aims to help bridge the gap disabled people face when accessing education, skills development and employment opportunities.
So how can employers encourage more of their disabled colleagues to disclose? Education, understanding and awareness are the keys to creating an organisational culture that is more inclusive for all colleagues living with a visible or non-visible disability.
- Tools and resources exist for employers interested in signing up to Are You IN? pledges, launched by Crohn’s & Colitis UK as part of its Not Every Disability is Visible campaign.
- The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower is a globally recognised symbol for non-visible disabilities. Anyone can find training resources and tools on their website.
- There is also a significant amount of information in the Disability Confident Campaign employer packs and on GOV.UK.
- The Access to Work service and the Access to Work Mental Health Support Service guide employers in supporting colleagues who wish to access these services.
From my perspective, the best advice in discussing disability is to approach it from a kind, unassuming and non-judgmental position. Seek opportunities to raise awareness in your organisation to allow colleagues to disclose and discuss in a safe environment, feeling empowered and supported.
Emma is a true believer in the power of HR practitioners to shape business and improve working lives by creating better places to work. As the Vice-Chair and Public Policy Lead for CIPD Manchester, she creates opportunities for like-minded professionals to gain insights and provide valuable feedback to the government on public policy.
In her day job, she’s highly motivated and experienced in working collaboratively with partners inside and outside the business to deliver challenging projects that make a real difference in rewarding and recognising people.
Undertaking a variety of HR roles over 17 years has given Emma the ability to flex and be pragmatic in creating strategic solutions to complex challenges. She’s always ready to learn and be inspired so she can challenge herself to be daring and courageous.
 Department for Work and Pensions (2021). National Disability Strategy. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1006098/National-Disability-Strategy_web-accesible-pdf.pdf (Accessed 1 November 2021).