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Hidden Disabilities in the Workplace

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), around one in five people in the UK have a disability, and a study by Leeds University estimates that around 70% of disabilities are “hidden”.  A hidden disability is one that it may not be possible to physically observe.  A recent Parliamentary publication gives examples of types of disabilities that may be hidden, including mental health conditions, sensory impairments, cognitive impairment, autism and Asperger syndrome, autoimmune diseases and neurological disorders.

In this blog, one of the ViewHR Team, Associate HR Consultant Shelley Poole shares her own experiences of a hidden disability, and we provide tips for employers to provide appropriate support.

Shelley was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) around ten years ago. MS is a neurological condition, and along with cancer, an HIV infection, and a visual impairment (where someone is certified as blind, severely sight impaired, sight impaired or partially sighted), is automatically classed as a disability in law. Shelley tells us more about her experiences of MS:

“I have relapsing-remitting MS, which means that the most severe symptoms can come and go.  On some days, I can walk a fairly long way confidently and comfortably, but on others I need my walking stick to cover even short distances.  I have seen some colleagues in previous roles become suspicious of this, and I have been subjected to comments about being ‘lazy’ for using the lift rather than the stairs, despite explaining my condition.

In addition to symptoms that come and go, I also have symptoms that are always there and vary in severity.  These include pain and fatigue, which other people cannot see, but they are very real to me.  Fatigue is a difficult word to use, because the fatigue experienced with MS is not simple tiredness – it can be completely disabling, utterly frustrating, and no amount of willpower or coffee helps.  In previous roles I have generally tried to keep quiet about this (and have sometimes felt the need to use excuses such as a headache to explain why I do not seem myself), because otherwise so often the response will be something like ‘I’m tired today too, my neighbour’s car alarm went off last night, but I’m just pushing through’, which (whilst I have sympathy for anybody who is tired) is very dismissive.

I am fortunate now that I have the ability to manage my working time based to better take account of my health.  However, a former employer refused to let me see Occupational Health at a time when I was recovering from being very seriously ill, and as a result of that reasonable adjustments that could have really helped me to perform better in my role were not even considered.”

So, what can employers do to support employees with disabilities (hidden or otherwise)?  The CIPD make a number of recommendations, including:

  • Implementing an inclusion policy, setting out how you will fulfil your legal and moral obligations;
  • Awareness raising activities such as training, to challenge stereotypes (e.g. assumptions that all disabilities are visible due to the person being a wheelchair or Braille user);
  • Giving proper consideration to and making reasonable adjustments;
  • Using pre-employment medical questionnaires (please see our recent blog on this topic here:;
  • Implementing training specifically for line managers: Disability ‘awareness’ training on its own is not enough: line managers need to know how to navigate conversations about disability and conditions with employees and understand how to arrange and implement reasonable adjustments.”

If you are an employer and have questions about how you can implement good practice for the wider workforce, or support for a specific employee, ViewHR can help – please contact us today for an initial discussion.