Workplace Health: Supporting the Disabilities We Can’t See
A couple months ago I attended Disability Allyship: Advocation for Abilities, an event sponsored by Breaking.Glass. This one-day conference was focused on disabilities in the workplace and employees with disabilities. Some employees come to the workplace with a disability, others may develop a disability while working. Some have a disability that we can see, others may have a hidden disabilities.
Being a person who studies health care and its cost, I’ve paid particular attention to the cost of disability. I think sometimes we expect these costs to show up as a worker’s compensation or disability claim. Of course it does, but what about the disability that we just haven’t seen yet. The type that develops from too much sitting, too much typing, and too much stress. Essentially all the challenges that are often put upon our employees everyday.
Years ago, early in my work career, I began to develop pain in my left elbow. The pain was related to all the typing and computer work that I was doing. My elbow would be sore and swollen and I would keep working. I sought the help of doctors who suggested surgery (which I was not interested in pursuing) or simply reducing the amount of work I did (again I wasn’t interested), or begin to lean on alternative support such as voice dictation. The way I chose to NOT help myself at work was by NOT raising my hand to ask for an accommodation such as voice dictation software or a more comfortable desk set-up. I chose instead, to avoid any hint that I may be on the brink of filing a worker’s compensation claim or too weak to do my job. I’d spend my spare time roaming around the office looking for more comfortable chairs that weren’t being used or making a makeshift sit / stand desk out of books and boxes.
Lucky for me after years of just dealing with this pain I connected with a chiropractor and acupuncturist that fixed my elbow within a relatively short period of time. I was lucky.
Recently I met Michelle who was not quite as lucky. Michelle worked for years and spent many hours on the computer. She was a “go-getter” and loved the work that she was doing. As a result, she worked despite the pain in her arms, wrists, and neck until finally, one day, her arms and fingers completely froze up and she was unable to type another letter! This sent Michelle on a long journey of worker’s compensation, surgeries, disability, and depression.
She eventually was able to work again, with accommodations, which then sent her on a new journey of learning to engage with potential employers when you have a hidden disability. All of this being complicated by her own and other’s opinions and insecurities related to hiring people with disabilities.
So where do the hidden disabilities reside in our populations? Are we seeing them in our healthcare data? Are we noticing them before they become disabilities? What about depression, anxiety, back issues, wrists problems? Do we have policies and the culture in place to make it easy for our employees to ask for help?
- 10% of Americans have a medical condition which could be considered a hidden disability.
- 96% of people with chronic medical conditions live with a condition that is hidden.
- 25% of them have some type of activity limitation, ranging from mild to severe.
The cost to an employer for a disability accommodation averages $500. The cost of a disability is much more!
If you’re looking to build a more supportive organization and more well-rounded health approach, here is list of some wonderful resources on disabilities in the workplace. Please also share your own.
- For more info on legal definitions of disability and laws: https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/disability.cfm
- To learn more about how companies can lead in disability inclusion: Business Leaders Network, Disability Equality Index at usbln.org