If you conduct a Google image search for “disability” or “disabled,” you will most likely find pictures of wheelchairs or individuals with prosthetic limbs and walking sticks. While these certainly can be accurate depictions of disability, not all disabilities are so obvious to the observer. In fact, as members of the business community who help disabled individuals navigate the path to receiving Social Security disability (SSDI) benefits, we know firsthand that many disabilities are invisible. We also know that just because a disability cannot be seen, does not mean it is not painful or debilitating.
October 17th – 23rd is Invisible Disabilities Week – a time dedicated to raising awareness of the challenges faced by those living with debilitating mental and physical health conditions that aren’t easily observed. Invisible Disabilities Week is also an opportunity for employers and insurers to carefully consider the struggles that disabled individuals experience in their daily lives, as well as the impact that their interactions can have on an employee or claimant’s long-term recovery and outlook.
Absence and disability, even a short-term disability, often create uncertainty for disabled individuals and their families. Many are contending with health, wellness, and income concerns, and answering questions from friends, family, medical providers, and insurers to prove how their condition truly limits their daily activities – particularly, since they “seem fine.” This can quickly become exhausting and discouraging. If a disabled person feels misunderstood or overlooked by the parties intended to help them navigate these difficult circumstances, it may lead to acrimonious relationships and can cause their mental and physical health to further deteriorate.
Here are some examples:
- A person working through post-traumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorder being told they are simply too stressed and need to relax could make them feel invalidated and misunderstood. Their mental health conditions likely require professional therapy and possibly medication; being encouraged to pursue these options and apply for disability benefits, if necessary, would communicate support and may increase the likelihood of the individual regaining their health and returning to work.
- An individual with chronic pain being questioned by their employer and colleagues for not lifting more than 10 pounds, despite their healthy appearance, can quickly lead tenuous relationships and mutual distrust. This would isolate the disabled individual and make it more difficult to maintain that job, as it does not seem like the employer is willing to accommodate the employee’s health needs.
While all absence claims and disabilities are unique, there are several ways that employers and insurance carriers can help disabled individuals feel safe, supported, and valued – thus significantly increasing the likelihood that they will return to work after a leave of absence and that they will maintain a positive outlook for the future. Examples of support for individuals with invisible disabilities include:
- Offer ample & accessible resources. Prioritizing the mental and physical health of individual claimants and employees establishes trust and a shared set of values. Make sure that any resources your organization has available to assist individuals struggling through a disability are easy to find and utilize. This includes Employee Assistance Programs, telemedicine, talk therapy, and other resources that can help protect their state of mind during a time when many things may feel uncontrollable or overwhelming.
- Communicate regularly. Maintaining regular contact during disability leave not only provides valuable opportunities for all parties to stay informed but is also likely to mitigate feelings of isolation disabled individuals may be experiencing during an already challenging time. Even after a short time, it is possible for anyone to develop a “disability mindset,” which may lead them to believe they will never recover. This can lead them to feel misunderstood by their peers and make them feel skeptical that they will be accepted by their employer upon returning to work.
- Develop a clear, specific policy/return to work plan. By taking the time to ensure a disabled individual clearly understands the terms of their disability policy and/or to develop a comprehensive return-to-work plan that includes any available accommodations or job modifications, you can strengthen the sense of trust you share with your employees or claimants, and increase the likelihood that they will return to work.
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that everyone’s experience with disability is unique to them. Invisible disabilities pose challenges that often go overlooked, which may lead to mental health challenges and increased feelings of isolation and fear. By listening, offering resources, and keeping open lines of communication, you can make a positive impact and drive outcomes that are best for everyone.