Hidden Disabilities -- 5 Things You Need to Know

Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

I think we'd all agree that it's easier to believe and understand what we can see and doubt or question things we cannot.  For children, teens, and adults with an invisible, or hidden disability, this increases the obstacles and the barriers to getting support.

There are some basic things to know about things you cannot see:

1.  The issue of no visible supports.  It's extremely difficult for a 5th Grader to explain to a teacher that he/she needs to stand vs. sit in a classroom.  Or to once again explain that their inability to read social cues in high school requires teacher assistance.  In school, disclosure is needed to access supports and services, yet many children struggle to convey and explain what they need even with these supports in place.  And because what they need isn't seen, they often face push-back and misunderstanding due to the hidden nature of their needs. 

2.  The issue of stigma.  No one wants to acknowledge that they're struggling and this is particularly true in the workplace.  The issue of "conceal or reveal" exists for every employee with an invisible disability and much depends upon the person, his/her needs and diagnosis, the company and environment, external support, and what guidance is received related to making their needs known.

In school, there are supports such as IEPs or 504s and parents are the front-line advocates in this arena.  Yet in the workplace, it's up to the individual to self-advocate.  Disclosure and the associated stigma and possible ramifications of doing so have real implications.

3.  The issue of being misunderstood.  Parents of children and teens with developmental disabilities, auditory processing deficits, learning challenges, and mental health issues (just to name a few) know the fight they often face to have teachers, family members, and others understand that their children's needs are real.  Far too often, children/teens with invisible disabilities are penalized - in school, in the community, at family functions, and in the juvenile justice system - for needs that cannot be seen. 

4.  The issue of permanence.  While there are services, supports, and strategies that can strengthen areas of need, many invisible disabilities are lifelong.  The issue often heard, when is comes to children and behavior, for example, about it being a "stage or phase" does a disservice to the struggles faced.  It also makes learning to self-advocate harder when others doubt your word and your realities from childhood into adulthood.

5.  The issue of struggle.  We tend to empathize with someone who uses a visible tool to aid in their functioning, yet often ignore or underestimate the needs of those whose struggles cannot be seen.  The physical, emotional, and mental toll of invisible or hidden disabilities are as real as any that can be seen, if not moreso.  The challenges faced go beyond learning to live with ADHD or a mental health diagnosis -- they are intensified by having to convince or prove that what they're dealing with is real.

From parents advocating for their children in school and teaching teens how to self-advocate, to acknowledging invisible disablities in college and the workplace,  the words of a very wise man are words to remember:

"Everything that we see is a shadow by that which we do not see." -Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Leaning In" By Another Name

I know that there are going to be people who vehemently disagree with my thoughts on this, but that's okay.  I tend to speak up and out particularly if I believe others may be harmed or excluded in some way.  This is no different. Several days ago, I heard Sheryl Sandberg say that "not all women can do what I do."  I stopped for a minute before my head blew off my shoulders, only to conclude that regardless of whether you interpreted this statement as "I'm giddy because I have access to supports and opportunities that other women don't" or  "I'm smarter/more capable than the rest of you," it set me off.

Sandberg's premise that women need to "lean in" in order to achieve, be successful, be recognized as strong negotiators or leaders ... all assume that women are somehow either sitting on their behinds watching the world pass by or are hoping that, someday or somehow, someone (perhaps on a white horse) will recognize their efforts and reward them accordingly.  Her advice that women take more risks and fantasize about their careers assumes that women at any age/stage either aren't or haven't been doing so, or that working mothers in particular have the time or resources to be *able* to take these risks or imagine themselves elsewhere.  Risk-taking and dreaming are great, but neither pays the bills.

For a woman who makes an income with more zeros than most people - women or men - will ever make ... for a woman with the convenience of having a nursery attached to her office so she can easily soothe her child ... for a woman who extols the wonders of having a spouse who helps with the housework and how this makes all the difference ... as far as I'm concerned, this is bullying ... albeit wrapped in a nicer package.

You might say, "Hey...this is an awfully harsh comparison to make to a woman whose purpose is to motivate women to reach high."  I think otherwise.  Why?  Because while bullying takes all forms, there are commonalities - bullying makes the recipient feel bad about themselves.  Makes them question their worth...wonder if they belong...makes them feel  "less than" or somehow lacking.  And yes, I'm vocal about bullying in all forms and ways.

Whether Sandberg cares to acknowledge it or not, there are millions of women "leaning in" every day to be both Mom and Dad as single parents, struggling to maintain their families and their lives.  Millions doing the daily juggling act of work deadlines, sick kids, aging parents, and managing a marriage and home.  Millions whose education, skills, experience, and yes...drive could easily match Sandberg's, yet situations and life have altered their paths.  Does this mean they aren't working hard or smart enough?  That they're slackers who need a swift kick to shift out of neutral and into gear?  I think not.

It seems to me that we're on a collision course between women who define their achievements in terms of rank and salary and those who see their lives and success differently.  Sure, what woman wouldn't like to be making more and have more flexibility and resources at her disposal.  But rewards and recognition - both in business and in life - are personal measures that shouldn't be open to scrutiny by others *unless* they are opening their hands to help.  Real help in real ways.  Women have made huge strides over the past 20 years, in part because other women have reached out - not down - to open doors, offer guidance, and lead the way.  That's why telling women how they're doing things wrong and making women feel bad about themselves is leading us to a critical fork in the road.

The whole "lean in" concept assumes that women haven't been trying hard enough or haven't been striving to reach the bar, placing many on the fringe as outsiders vs. bringing them into the fold as part of a whole.  It reminds me of those dreadful middle school years where cliques of girls would verbally spar with each other to achieve status.  And we know which girls always worked the hardest - and yes, even the smartest - for recognition and acceptance and received it the least.  Isn't it time to forget the catch phrases which alienate and start recognizing that "leaning in" is just one of the many things women are already doing - and doing quite well - and applaud them for such?