Offering employees the flexibility to work remotely can give businesses a competitive advantage. Talent managers, supervisors and executives who are seeking to attract and retain the best workers need to think more about how to support their remote workforce and maximize their ROI, especially for those employees with “invisible” disabilities. (Note: Disability experts recommend using “non-apparent,” a more inclusive descriptor.)
Like the term suggests, “non-apparent disabilities” are those that are not immediately detectable, such as dyslexia, ADHD, depression, anxiety, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, hearing or vision loss. Assume that individuals with non-apparent disabilities are already part of your organization, even if no one has yet to disclose that information, say experts.
Upwards of 80% of all disabilities are non-apparent, says Meg O’Connell, CEO and founder of Global Disability Inclusion, a boutique consulting firm providing disability inclusion strategies and solutions for global companies, foundations, nonprofits and universities.
The corporate mindset needs to shift away from employers wondering whether they have employees with non-apparent disabilities to recognizing that they are likely already part of their workforce.
“The likely statistic is that 15-20% of your people have a disability,” says O’Connell.
Employers should examine any implicit biases they may hold—such as, who can do what and where work needs to happen, says Derek Shields, president of ForwardWorks Consulting, a firm with expertise in disability inclusion and accessibility.
“I’ve attended, delivered and experienced a lot of excellent implicit bias training,” Shields says. “Unfortunately, what I don’t see is the follow-on implementation of what was learned. While we have hired the very personnel—and in many cases, created employee resource groups—that would help us disrupt and change the outdated policies and processes, I’m afraid there often remains a disconnect between the training and the change so many people desire and need.”
For companies and business leaders just starting out on their disability inclusion journey, HR and DEI leaders can consider starting with a benchmarking tool, such as the Disability Equality Index, which provides a helpful framework for executives to think about disability inclusion across their entire business.
“The Disability Equality Index is one example of a benchmarking tool that can help companies assess where they are, and build a roadmap of measurable, tangible actions that they can take to improve disability inclusion,” says Margaux Joffe, a certified disability inclusion consultant and founder of Kaleidoscope Society, an online platform for/by adult women with ADHD. “However, [as] a self-measurement tool, it should be paired with feedback from employees and customers with disabilities to get the full picture.”
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Ask the Employees
Shields recommends that employers source their solutions directly through individuals inside or out of their organizations with expertise in this space. Organize focus groups of people with non-apparent disabilities or engage volunteers from your employee resource group (ERG) that’s focused on non-apparent disabilities, “to determine what you have, don’t have, and/or need. Building opportunities for authentic guidance from individuals with non-apparent disabilities is key,” he says.
Businesses use surveys, focus groups and listening sessions to understand the needs of their customers. The same tactics can be used to understand the internal challenges within a company.
“It all starts with understanding the needs and pain points of employees,” adds Joffe.
While gathering input from employees with non-apparent disabilities is good, Joffe cautions employers to allocate appropriate headcount and resources to the day-to-day work of accessibility and disability inclusion, rather than solely leaving it up to employee volunteers.
“ERGs are a valuable partner, but it is not appropriate for corporations to leave all the work of driving disability inclusion to ERG leaders without support or compensation,” she adds. “Hire for roles to manage your disability inclusion work, or dedicate teams to oversee the process, depending on the size of your business.”
Implement Common Sense Strategies
Allow universal design to inform any accommodations for employees with non-apparent disabilities. Sending out an agenda, for example, the day before the meeting, so that someone with dyslexia has time to process/prepare, is also just a good workplace practice.
“Everyone knows how to make PowerPoints more accessible,” says O’Connell. “PDFs are not accessible by screen readers, so maybe also send a Word document attachment as well.”
Providing simple adjustments such as captions during a Zoom call not only helps employees who are deaf or hard of hearing and better serves your employees for whom English is not their first language. For employees with auditory processing disorders or ADHD, turning on captions significantly helps boost comprehension.
Another strategy is to create meetings that include multiple ways for employees to participate. Not everyone is comfortable speaking up in large meetings, so provide multiple avenues for employees to provide input. Encourage employees to share their thoughts via the chat or poll function, for example.
Allow flexibility for employees to choose either to keep their cameras on or turn them off during video conferencing—whatever supports each employee’s maximum engagement and participation. Back-to-back video conference meetings, where the camera always has to be on, can be very taxing for some people.
“Some folks with autism, ADHD or kinesthetic processing styles may need to stim, fidget, stretch or move their body to really sustain attention and process the information being shared,” Joffe says. “On camera they may feel pressure to sit still and perform certain facial expressions to show they are listening. This means they are spending a lot of energy performing and masking which can cause anxiety, be exhausting, and takes away from actually being able to pay attention to the conversation.”
Additionally, employees with chronic illnesses or depression may have days where their condition flares up and they may not have energy to get dressed, they may need to work from their bed, or need privacy for a number of other reasons.
“Camera-off flexibility provides visual privacy that allows people to access and participate in work… Also, seeing yourself on screen can be very distracting and make some folks feel self-conscious,” adds Joffe.
Communicating important deadlines and information in writing is another strategy that can help employees with executive functioning impairments such as ADHD. The more clear, concise, and concrete you can be about priorities, expectations, and deadlines, the better.
Thinking that accessibility is “someone else’s responsibility … just an IT issue” is outdated thinking that needs to change, O’Connell adds.
To support multiple working styles, try implementing platforms such as Focusmate and Caveday, applications which allow coworkers to coordinate virtual work sessions with other colleagues to create structure, accountability and chunk up big projects into smaller tasks. Participating coworkers place themselves on mute and decide whether or not to turn on their camera or keep it off. After working for an agreed-upon period of time, colleagues regroup and share their accomplishments with each other.
Prioritize Education and Training
Training — to increase learning and change people’s perspectives — should be a requirement of all managers, advises Shields. Businesses should consider changing performance evaluations for senior leaders to align with their DEI and ESG objectives. When that happens, employment and advancement of individuals with disabilities, including non-apparent disabilities, will receive more support and resources.
“What are the real characteristics of a job description versus what was written 15 years ago and just keeps getting repurposed?” Shields asks. Employers should “scrub job performance reviews of unintentional bias that may be excluding people with non-apparent disabilities from advancement opportunities.”
One training program O’Connell’s organization created with SHRM is the Employing Abilities at Work certificate program, the first certification program for HR professionals offering actionable knowledge and tools for recruitment, hiring and retaining individuals with disabilities. The free, 10-hour long self-paced program takes HR leaders through all the touchpoints of working with employees with disabilities from onboarding to day-to-day performance management, and gives attendees recertification credits.
Walk the Talk
Disability representation all levels, especially the highest, helps create the change needed to transform the workplace into the most accessible and inclusive as possible. Joffe wants to see more leaders in the C-Suite, in positions of power, self-disclosing that they have a non-apparent disability.
Leaders who self-disclose their own non-apparent disabilities send a powerful message to their direct reports, Shields said. “Everyone who reports to that individual knows, this is a trusting space. If I decide I want to, I can disclose as well.”
Leaders should also encourage prioritizing mental health in how their managers lead. Supervisors should set aside time at the beginning of a meeting or event to focus on employees well-being by asking: “how are you doing?” In turn, employees should be encouraged to set aside focused time on their calendars so they can get their job done. If employees are attending too many meetings and stressed about their work, this can exacerbate non-apparent disabilities.
“Unfortunately, supervisors aren’t paid for their empathy skills,” so Shields recommends that businesses try and shift performance reviews to be more aligned with their DEI work, which he says, “just gets back to ideas that are good for all”—and not merely focusing disability-related discussions on those needing reasonable accommodations and adjustments.
Identify the Real Problem(s)
At the end of the day, there are multiple accommodations and strategies you can use to support all your employees – including those with non-apparent disabilities. Remote work shouldn’t be viewed as a barrier or a problem.
“Stop worrying that you can’t supervise people working from home,” says Allison Nichol, director of Legal Advocacy at the Epilepsy Foundation of America. “In my experience, an employee who isn’t productive at home also wasn’t productive at the office. You have a productivity problem not a geography problem.”
Nichol encourages fellow executives to take a minute to consider how they supervised staff in the office, and recognize that remote work isn’t all that different. Chances are, you weren’t walking by your in-office employees every fifteen minutes to make sure they were working.
“If you did, you should stop that management practice because you are micromanaging and no one wants to be on your team,” advises Nichol. “Starting with the presumption that you were talented enough to hire great people who are high performers goes a long way in enhancing the comfort level of upper management that the change to a fully remote workplace will not reduce productivity.”