By Jeremy Einbinder and Joe Nardini
Disability is not usually a straightforward and simple concept to grasp. Sometimes the conditions in which someone can thrive- which should always be the goal- are not immediately apparent. This can get complicated if someone needs to be accommodated in a specific way and the people who could help do not have the means to do so. It is even more unfortunate if they do have the means but do not have the will.
According to the C.D.C., 61 million adults across the U.S. identify as having a disability, and ten percent of them are hidden conditions such as psychiatric and personality disorders, traumatic brain injury, intellectual deficits, epilepsy, H.I.V., A.I.D.S., diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, emotional disturbance, cystic fibrosis, autism, dyslexia, A.D.H.D., O.C.D, and more.
The ways in which these disabilities present themselves as “invisible” is a bit of a misnomer. The impairments themselves might not be physical, but their effects are real and concrete. They are no less authentic and inhibiting because they cannot be seen by the untrained eye. Everything that makes it hard for someone to be “employable,” for example, can often be an unnoticed disability in need of accommodations, which are not given credence or, despite being known, simply get ignored.
According to a blog on Very Well Health,
“The term "invisible disability" or "invisible illness" is used to describe any condition that stereotypically doesn’t present in a physical way. It was previously used for chronic illnesses, but in recent years, it has also been expanded to include mental health, gynecological conditions, and neurodiverse conditions.”
Clearly these conditions, although they do not always have a readily apparent, visible marker, have a tangible effect on the lives of people who have them, and it can be extremely frustrating for a person to be told they do not need accommodations. In fact, in the popular vernacular, they are considered “not really disabled.” This is of course, false and harmful. In addition, for the many people who have both “forms” of disability, their non-physical challenges are usually at risk of being ignored. These are huge problems which cannot stand.
Disabled people, as a group, have comparatively little social power compared to their able-bodied counterparts. Even if a person in a position of power happens to have disabilities, not all disabilities are the same. As it stands right now, in the world of employment, terms of work are not customizable. This represents the primary need for new accommodations in the modern employment era. In its first 30 years since George H. W. Bush signed it into law on July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) made prodigious advances on behalf of people with visible, physical disabilities. This is why we now see sign language interpreters for the hearing impaired at public events, beveled curbs at busy intersections, talking books and service animals for the sight impaired, and new building construction with ramps and doorways wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Even where these things are lacking, they are at least in theory supposed to be the standard. For people with other kinds of disabilities, the courtesy does not even seem to go that far.
As the 21st century continues to unfold, employers, schools, caregiving organizations and even families face the challenge of providing new age accommodations for people with non-visible and/or non-physical disabilities. This new level of ADA awareness can only come about through widespread education, marketing and advertising campaigns. Mass media will have an important role to play.
Why do so many people without dignified and appropriately compensated employment remain in that position? Because they cannot get a job that allows them that sort of comfort. Since the employer sets the terms of employment, a job seeker does not have free reign to ask for whatever they feel they need. The employer’s job is to find people whose labor power they feel can make the most profit. If anything might make an employer uncomfortable about the different ways work can be done, they have grounds not to hire a person just because it’s a hassle.
Unfortunately, while a company thankfully cannot fire someone specifically for being disabled, they can nonetheless refuse to hire anyone they want, and in many states in the US, can fire someone for no reason at all. When a company looks for someone to hire, they most often look for someone from whom they can extract the most profit. If someone has cognitive or learning differences, the talents and capabilities they have might not be conducive to that arrangement. They might perform tasks at a slower pace than others, or they might have trouble following directions. They might be rigid and develop their own methods of doing things. None of these differences should sentence anyone to a life of poverty or social isolation. Ironically, such struggles might leave a person with neurological problems undiagnosed and not getting the support they need, all the while wondering why they cannot seem to hold down a job. Diagnoses, as it turns out, are expensive.
For people who know they have “invisible disabilities,” in the case of things like employment, daily tasks, and socialization with peers, it is a common question whether or not to disclose it. If they do, will an employer refuse to hire them? Will their friends, partners and coworkers come to resent them? Will they neglect their health and wellness just so they do not have to carry the “disabled” label, even though they might have chronic pain and clearly need assistance they are afraid to ask for, or, more to the point, is too expensive to ask for?
Impairments and neurological differences are a part of material reality, but the way society at large reacts to them is a social construction that can, with admittedly a lot of effort, shift. As the 21st century workplace continues to emerge it must shift. Presently, the status quo in the world of work supports the old adage that “the only disability in life is a bad attitude.” That is simply false and unacceptable. The status quo is disrespectful to real struggle and puts an onus on disabled people, made to believe that they are not trying hard enough. The incentive for people who are not struggling in “atypical ways,” to ignore people who are is palpable. With all the advances made in the name of the ADA, uninformed attitudes and lack of public awareness remain as intransigent as ever. There is both a social and monetary incentive to disallow people struggling the most to set their own terms of how they need to live their lives. People struggling in these ways need to be heard, and they need to be trusted.
Above all, they need to be accommodated.