Disability History Month 2021: what are hidden impairments and how can employers help?
Since 2009, Disability History Month has run annually to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by disabled individuals, as well as celebrate their victories. One of this year’s themes is hidden impairments, which affects more than half of the 13.5 million people currently identified as disabled in the UK. Despite the huge number of people affected by hidden impairments, the disability is often overlooked by employers and society.
Ryan, our Communications Assistant, experiences chronic pain. Although it is not recognised by the UK government as a disability, it is listed by the UKDHM Organisation. We sat down to talk about what it’s like to have a hidden impairment, and what employers can do to help.
What is a hidden impairment?
A hidden impairment is a disability that is not immediately obvious. Invisible impairments can be physical, mental or neurological, including conditions like ADHD, Dyslexia, Fibromyalgia, Depression, MS and many more.
What is your hidden impairment?
Chronic pain; I was diagnosed with the condition in 2013 after I fell off a stool at college. The pain is orientated around my coccyx, it’s not broken or out of place, but the doctors suspect I have nerve damage, which is pretty much untreatable. It took 2-3 years to get a diagnosis. Originally, they thought I had Coccydynia, but they finally put it down to chronic pain.
What is chronic pain?
It’s a pain that has persisted for longer than 12 weeks, despite medication or treatment.
What were those first few years like?
I experienced a mixture of emotions; the pain really did affect my life so I was at my lowest mental health as well. I used to work in a factory, but I was exhausted from constantly dealing with the pain. It just wasn’t manageable, even though I was still on a good amount of painkillers at this time.
How did you manage the pain?
I was on an opioid, which I did get a dependency on. I quickly realised that I needed to be off them as soon as possible, because that’s not good for anyone. I came off of them and now I’m on anti-seizure and anti-inflammatory medicine which numbs the nerves down. I also have a special cushion and desk setup.
How has your hidden impairment affected your life?
It’s gotten a lot better, but at its worst I was bed bound. For 2 to 3 months I might spend half of the day in bed, up to two days of the week. My muscles would spasm and I hadn’t yet found the right pain killers, so it was the most painful time for me.
I was working in retail and I had to take a lot of time off work because of the pain. My boss would say they understood, but I could feel their disappointment.
How has it affected your working life in the past?
After I told my previous employer, I was treated differently. Although my boss would ask if I could do something before she told me to do it, I felt pressured to try and get on with things. I felt that I was forced to do things that would trigger my chronic pain, which would leave me in more physical pain and affect my mental health.
Do you tell employers about your impairment?
For A New Normal I did, because it's very relevant to what we do. They were very, very nice; you know how lovely they are.
It wasn’t so easy in my previous job. I used to work in a charity shop, and they treated me differently after I told them I have chronic pain, like I was a liability. They would ask if I could lift heavy objects, which I shouldn’t have, but it’s hard to say no to your manager. This caused my pain to get even worse which had a knock on effect, not just my physical health but my mental health as well.
Do you feel like your physical and mental health are linked?
Definitely. My mental health was its worst when my physical pain was at its peak. Dealing with the physical pain was exhausting and it’d stack on top of the depression of the job. Yeah, it just led to an explosion of my mental health really.
How would you like to see managers treat employees with hidden impairments?
Once they’re told, I think they should be as accommodating as possible. To help an employee perform the best that they can, employers need to prioritise their wellbeing over the job.
If I was the manager, I would be completely transparent. I would ask them what are your specific limitations, so I could understand where their physical limitations might lie.
Openness and honesty are so important; and managers should be as supportive as possible. Rather than waiting for the individual to initiate everything, it would be great if employers could start the conversation by asking ‘what can we do to help?’. Then, they can execute any reasonable adjustments that person may have, whether that’s wheelchair access or a more supportive desk setup.
I also think it would be helpful if managers had regular catch ups with all employees to just talk about how they’re feeling personally, rather than always being focused on business. With these regular discussions, what the employee needs will come up quickly.