Unseen Challenges: The Unique Needs of Young Adults with “Invisible Disabilities” in the Work Place.


As learning differences are increasingly studied and new interventions have been created, a relatively new term has been devised to describe those with less noticeable cognitive, mental health, and health-related challenges: “invisible disabilities.” (Association, ND). While historically these individuals may have been under-supported in the academic context, as a result of increasing research and the breadth of understanding and applicability of the ADA (American with Disabilities Act) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act people with “invisible disabilities” are accessing higher education at a higher level than ever before, and universities are providing more services to accommodate them. As of 2016, 67% of students with learning differences are enrolling in college within eight years of high school graduation, which is similar to the percentage of the general population (Casteneda, 2016) However, what happens when these students graduate and enter the workforce, where the accommodations they may have grown accustomed to are no longer available? With only 46% of individuals with learning differences reporting full-time employment (Cortiella, 2014), it is clear that more support is needed. While there are comprehensive programs, both privately and publicly funded, designed to help young people on the autism spectrum and with visible cognitive and physical disabilities to prepare for and maintain employment, fewer services are available for those with invisible disabilities, whose challenges may require less clear or explicit accommodations. However, these individuals, who are frequently not diagnosed until early adulthood, also face challenges in the workplace, and although these challenges may be subtle, they can also be devastating. They may pertain to understanding the nuances of interpersonal relationships in the office, integrating into a workplace culture, or demonstrating the executive functioning skills essential to multitasking. I offer a few tips to help these young adults become successful.

A common complaint I hear in my practice is: “I interview so well,” but then when I start the job I have all of these challenges.” Some clients also report feeling that they have deceived and disappointed their employers, who may have picked up on a candidate’s intelligence and interview skills but discover later that he or she is struggling to integrate into the office culture, multitask under pressure, or simply understand his or her role in a specific positon.    Unfortunately, these deficits may lead to poor performance reviews and ultimately job termination. However, there are specific supports that these individuals would benefit from that are not offered in traditional employment training programs.

Individuals with invisible disabilities will sometimes feel overwhelmed by their job requirements, but this often stems from situations in which their job role is not clear. At times, employers will expect their employees to intuitively figure out the requirements and limits of their specific positions, as well as when to ask for guidance. Due to the nuances of job roles in today’s economy, employment training that would help those with invisible disabilities to gain confidence in asking for role clarification is a critical but often neglected service.

Individuals with invisible disabilities may feel anxious in the workplace when they are asked to multi-task in a fast-paced environment. Compounding this is the challenge that many face in understanding their employer’s implicit priorities. For example, an employer may view finishing an expense report, which is critical for the bottom line, as more important than working on the company website, but may assume that the employee understands this rather than communicating it directly. The employee, however, may have missed this message. Support programs therefore should work with employers as well as employees to facilitate clearer communication.

The challenges in the workforce are made more complex by increasingly nuanced social norms and expectations, which young adults with invisible disabilities may not pick up on. Specifically, they may be a challenge for them to figure out how and when to join a conversation or what topics are appropriate to bring up in a work setting, as opposed to a university or more informal setting. Some of these individuals may not realize that revealing personal information may be inappropriate at work, while others may not know how and when to contribute to a collegial conversation at work. Self-advocating and asking for support when assignments or tasks seem overwhelming, as well as handling criticism from a boss or colleagues, are critical tools that must be practiced over time. Working with a therapist or another kind of service provider who can help to address these issues through role-play and collaborative brainstorming is a critical step for developing strategies and self-confidence.

While there are many challenges that young adults with invisible disabilities face in the workforce, there are services that should and could be developed to assist them. I have outlined a few suggestions that may be helpful.

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