Invisible disability stigma is driving workers to hide conditions

Leading Disability Employment Services Provider says workplaces must do their best to educate employees that ‘not all disabilities are visible’

Disability discrimination accounts for the highest volume of complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission annually. This can potentially lead to those living with an invisible disability to decide to hide
their condition from prospective employers in fear of discrimination and social stigma, according to leading Disability Employment Services experts atWork Australia. In order to create inclusive workplaces, the need for support, open conversation and businesses to see the ability in disability, has never been more important.

Research shows that mental health conditions are at least twice as prevalent than they were in non-pandemic circumstances. With another 700,000 2 Australians said to live with a brain injury and approximately 3.95 million experiencing hearing loss, invisible disabilities are affecting more people each day.

“Invisible disabilities, or hidden disabilities, are those that are not immediately obvious including mental and/or neurological conditions, impairments to the senses, chronic pain and issues that restrict
movement,” says Shaun Pianta, atWork Australia DES Ambassador & Disability Awareness Trainer.

“As a result of these conditions not being instantly apparent, this can lead to a multitude of misconceptions, judgements and sadly, discrimination,” he adds.

In a recent study on the people who experience the highest rate of employment restrictions, those living with ‘invisible’ disabilities reported highest, with 91% experiencing mental ill health, 88% for emotional
and nervous conditions and 78% experiencing chronic pain.

Sharah Smith, a client of atWork Australia lives with depression and anxiety which at one point led to a severe social phobia and agoraphobia.

“The fact that I couldn’t leave my home made it incredibly hard to even consider employment, and I worried that while people are usually understanding, some may still judge and think that I was ‘lazy’ or needed to ‘get over it’. When I began speaking with atWork Australia, however, I began to trust them and the process due to their understanding of my illness.

“I eventually became comfortable around my Job Coaches who encouraged me to try new things, like going to appointments and catching public transport alone. I attended a resilience group atWork Australia hosted and regained some of my social skills. They also referred me to counselling and coached me before interviews, even driving me to meetings and my first day of work. They also helped me gain my licence, which was a requisite for my current job,” Sharah adds.

Business leaders have a pivotal role in educating themselves and their employees on the benefits of employing someone living with disability and changing the focus to seeing the abilities that these workers bring to their roles.

Beyond supporting those living with disability, businesses also gain a lot of benefit from creating inclusive workplaces, as research shows that in 9 out of 10 cases (90%), employees with disability, injury or health condition are as, or more, productive than their peers and almost the same number (86%) show superior attendance.

Disability Employment Services, an Australian Government initiative delivered by atWork Australia, aims to support businesses by offering bespoke inclusive recruitment advice based on their needs, and to connect them with job-ready candidates.