Arguably, the largest group of people with disabilities in the workforce today are those with disabilities that are not apparent to others. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, nearly half of all Americans have a chronic illness and about 96% of those with a chronic illness do not have symptoms that are obvious to others (CDC, 2007). The leading cause of disability among people aged 15 – 44 in the U.S. is now depression (NIMH, 2004). Consider the following prevalent types of disability in the U.S. workforce: Arthritis, mental illness, diabetes, cancer, learning disabilities, Asperger’s/autism, chemical sensitivity disorder, PTSD, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and others.
This is a phrase that frustrates many people with nonobvious disabilities. Often, a challenge for many people with non-obvious disabilities is that of being believed and taken seriously. Because a disability is not obvious, others may sometimes believe it does not exist or that it’s all "in your head." A first step in understanding non-obvious disability in the workplace is to recognize the legitimacy of invisible disabilities.
Though we would not be likely to blame a person who uses a wheelchair for their condition, we are more likely to "blame the person" for disabilities such as mental illness, chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis and other non-obvious disabilities. Somehow, we have come to see disabilities like mental illness as a character flaw or a sign of weakness rather than a brain disorder. Or, we may believe that if the person should just "toughen up." These misperceptions can cause harm to people with non-obvious disabilities as they struggle with accessibility issues or as they try to get or retain employment.
Though most employers "get it" when it comes to accommodations for those who use wheelchairs or have obvious sensory disabilities, they struggle to understand what accommodations might apply for the large group of people with disabilities such as mental illness, diabetes or chemical sensitivity.
For people with non-obvious disabilities, disclosure is often a choice. This has implications across several human resource functions. During hiring, a person with a non-obvious disability can choose whether or not disclose a disability. Likewise, an employee will only need to disclose a disability if she decides to request an accommodation.
Whether a disability is obvious to others or not, the person may still be protected against discrimination by the ADA. Title I (the employment provision) of the ADA does not differentiate between people with obvious or non-obvious disabilities in terms of legal obligations, rights and responsibilities.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control (2007). Chronic Diseases are the Leading Causes of Death and Disability in the U.S. (Accessed at http://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/overview/index.htm).
National Institute of Health (2004). "NIMH: The numbers count—Mental disorders in America." National Institute of Health. (Available at http://wwwapps.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-numbers-count-mental-disorders-in-america.shtml. [Citing 2004 World Health Report Annex Table 3 Burden of disease in DALYs by cause, sex and mortality stratum in WHO regions, estimates for 2002. Geneva: World Health Organization].