Non-visible vs visible disabilities | EAPA-SA

The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes the term “disability” as covering “impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions”. Being born with, or acquiring, a disability can be life-altering and bring significant obstacles to everyday life. Life with a disability can be made even more difficult by having to deal with a significant amount of stigma associated with disability. 

Employers have a duty of care to ensure disabled workers can overcome any substantial barrier to completing their work and progressing, as well as thriving, in their careers. When it comes to recruitment, disabled individuals need to have the same chance as those who are non-disabled at being awarded a job. Anything that makes a job inaccessible to a disabled candidate needs to be modified to make recruitment equal and fair, particularly to deliver on an organisation’s commitment to DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion). 

“Visible disabilities are immediately discernible. Whereas a non-visible disability is not immediately obvious.”

What differentiates visible and non-visible disabilities?

Visible disabilities are immediately discernable. Whereas a non-visible disability is not immediately obvious. Thus, observed at face value, non-visible disabilities may defy stereotypes of what people think a person’s appearance or normal conduct ought to be. Certain developmental disabilities, such as ADHD or an autism spectrum disorder, may be particularly undetectable and so can lead to misunderstanding – unless one gets to spend more time with the affected person. It is important to emphasise that even though a disability cannot be seen, it does not mean it does not exist. 

Which disabilities are non-visible?

A non-visible disability can be described as a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s cognitive abilities, senses, physical agility or activities. Non-visible disabilities can have side effects that affect the way the individual thinks, hears, speaks or interacts with others. Non-visible disabilities include a wide range of disabilities, which may include:

  • mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, personality disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder,
  • autism and Asperger’s Syndrome,
  • visual impairments or restricted vision,
  • hearing loss,
  • sensory and processing difficulties,
  • cognitive impairment, including dementia, traumatic brain injury, or learning disabilities,
  • non-visible chronic health conditions, including diabetes, chronic pain or fatigue, respiratory conditions or incontinence. 




Which disabilities are visible?

According to the WHO, persons with disabilities have twice the risk of developing conditions such as depression, asthma, diabetes, stroke or obesity.  Some common visible disabilities include:

  • Hearing impairment 
  • Visual impairments 
  • Cerebral palsy 
  • Multiple Sclerosis 
  • Down’s Syndrome
  • Tourette Syndrome 
  • Paralysis
  • Amputations
  • Dwarfism


How you can help employees with non-visible disabilities

According to a 2017 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, among white-collar, college-educated employees around the world, 30% have a disability. However, only 3.2% self-identify as having a disability to their employers. And of all employees with a disability, 62% have a non-visible disability.

What can organisations do to help their workers with a disability? Here are three practical steps you can take.

  • Ensure employees feel comfortable disclosing their disability.

Employees with non-visible disabilities will feel more comfortable presenting their authentic selves with their colleagues if they know they work in an inclusive environment. This starts with communicating disability inclusion efforts from top to bottom, across the whole organisation. The 2017 study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that those who disclose their disabilities are more than twice as likely to feel regularly happy or content at work than those who have not disclosed to anyone.

  • Review the accommodations your organisation offers for people with disabilities. 

Providing accommodations for employees with disabilities need not be expensive or difficult. Here are two examples of low-cost accommodations:

    • An employee who struggles with working memory due to a learning disability could receive written instructions for job duties instead of relying on verbal discussion.
    • A person with a chronic condition may need a flexible start time or break time to receive physical therapy or take medication.
  • Offer services and support for people with disabilities.

Creating or promoting an employee resource group (ERG) that focuses on disability can be a very empowering forum for employees with disabilities and their colleagues who draw alongside them as allies and ambassadors to network and raise issues. 

Your company can offer support for employees with non-visible disabilities in other ways. This can include:

    • Making sure mental health coverage is included in your company insurance plan as seeing out-of-network providers can be costly.
    • Promoting free services that are part of the employee benefit package. An example of this is an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) that provides individual support and can provide useful information to all employees. 

“An inclusive workplace that supports people with disabilities leads to more than just bottom-line benefits.”

The benefits of supporting employees with disabilities — both visible and non-visible — go beyond improving the work lives of these individuals. An inclusive workplace that supports people with disabilities leads to more than just bottom-line benefits. It fosters a culture of openness and creates an environment where all employees can succeed. A 2018 study by Accenture discovered that organisations who adopt best practices for hiring and supporting people with disabilities achieved, on average, 28% higher revenue and double the net income than their peers.