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OPINION: Is there an invisible disabled elephant in your workplace?

Tuesday, Apr 4, 2017, by Sheryl Blythen

Diversity Consultant Philip Patston discusses strategies to ensure people with invisible disabilities can get their needs met at work. In the scheme of things, when it comes to getting my access needs met in my daily life, including my work, I consider myself lucky. Using a wheelchair makes it obvious that I need accessible parking, access to ramps and lifts, some help with physical tasks, among other things. My access needs are usually met without question. This isn't the case, however, for a significant proportion of people with access needs — those with invisible, sometimes referred to as hidden, disabilities. Invisible or hidden disabilities take numerous forms. They may be physical – a bad back, arthritis or chronic fatigue; emotional – anxiety or depression; cognitive –- dyslexia or autism; sensory – reduced vision or hearing. Not only are they difficult to identify, they are often misunderstood, misinterpreted or stigmatised by others. In the workplace, employers can unknowingly create barriers for employees with non-obvious access needs. It's most often unintended – it's hard to do or provide something when you don't know it's needed. Here are some simple strategies for both employers and employees to make sure access needs that aren't obvious don't go unheeded. Communicate – in the right way and at the right time It is best practice for an employer not to ask whether a person has a disability, illness or access need on a job application form or during an interview. Doing so puts an employer at risk, should the applicant be unsuccessful, of being seen to be refusing to employ the person because of their disability. Many employers do ask, however, but an applicant has no duty to disclose, even if asked. The correct time to discuss access needs is at the time of offering the candidate a job. At this time, it is appropriate for a candidate and prospective employer to explore how the candidate's disability will impact on their ability to do the job. It’s a good idea for the candidate to be upfront and honest, particularly if the access need isn’t obvious. Make disability and accessibility part of the workplace culture Access needs are not necessarily permanent. Injury, illness or life events can impact on anyone’s ability to function temporarily at any time. Creating a workplace culture where this is acknowledged and accepted means employees will feel comfortable to disclose any change in their ability to perform their job and what they need in terms of support. The absence of transparency about disability can manifest an unspoken culture of shame, which will stop employees feeling comfortable to share their hidden access needs. Be generous, courageous and leaderly If both employees and employers act in a spirit of generosity when it comes to sharing information about invisible disability and understanding any resulting needs, it needn’t be an issue in the office. No matter where you sit in an organisation, from the boardroom to the shop floor, make it your responsibility to take leadership. Have the courage to begin the conversation and to stay engaged in it. Disability, whether invisible or not, is a part of life and no-one is immune. Don’t let it be the invisible elephant in your workplace. Read more about employers’ responsibilities under the Human Rights Act Do you think organisations need to do more to recognise hidden disabilities? We’d love to hear your feedback on this issue – email ceo@diversityworksnz.org.nz Philip Patston is the Managing Director of Diversity New Zealand Ltd and works to deepen awareness of diversity in creative, fun, non-threatening ways. His passion is leading change that embraces curiosity and inquiry into diversity, complexity and uncertainty. His vision is a society where all people freely share and celebrate identity and self-expression.

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