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Don’t Be Blind To Invisible Disabilities

While employers might be confident in their knowledge of common ‘visible’ disabilities, so-called ‘invisible’ disabilities pose a greater challenge. In this article I explain how employers can best support people with these conditions

What does the law say?

According to the Equality Act 2010, a person has a disability if they:

  • Have a physical or mental impairment; and
  • The impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

It’s an employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments for those employees. The Act states the keys to managing this duty are to:

  • Identify the circumstances at work that are causing the disadvantage;
  • Understand if the disadvantage is caused by the health condition; and
  • Explore what reasonable steps you can take to alleviate the disadvantage.

However, an employer needs to know about an employee’s disability for changes to be implemented.

The Act says that “an employer is not under a duty to make reasonable adjustments if it does not know and could not reasonably be expected to know that the individual was disabled.

This is potentially a major problem when it comes to invisible disabilities – such as dyslexia and autism.

Understanding ‘invisible’ disabilities’  


A person with dyslexia may:

  • Have difficulty reading
  • Read and write slowly
  • Have problems spelling
  • Have difficulty taking notes or copying text
  • Have poor writing
  • Mispronounce names or words
  • Struggle to meet deadlines

For someone with dyslexia, the effects of the condition can be exacerbated if a role change or promotion means there’s a greater emphasis on written documentation or report writing, the person is required to use new ways of working or IT systems, or they have a new line manager who is less understanding and sympathetic of their condition.

Some of the adjustments you could consider include:

  • Offering verbal as well as written instructions, and communicating these in a quiet environment;
  • Setting up a computer screen with different coloured backgrounds on documents;
  • Proof-read;
  • Alternate computer work with other tasks where possible; and
  • Allocate them a private workspace.


Someone with autism will display symptoms including:

  • Challenges with non-verbal communication
  • Tendency to discuss themselves rather than others
  • Lack of eye contact or reciprocal conversation
  • Obsession with specific topics
  • Awkward movements or mannerisms
  • Above-average verbal skills
  • Being exceptionally talented at particular tasks

You may come across some of these common issues if an employee has autism – there may be a lack of understanding from colleagues. These employees may be subject to complaints or harassment about their behaviour, but complaints they may make about bullying may not be taken as seriously as they should be.

Adjusting how you communicate with employees with autism will reduce the risk of issues arising. Removing jargon, ambiguity and exaggeration will help, as will removing context i.e. not relying on vocal emphasis, facial expressions and gestures.

Be clear with verbal instructions and provide them in writing as well. Allow employees time to process information, with the opportunity to work alone, and give them as much control as possible over their work. Appointing a mentor may also help.

Social interactions is another area to consider for such employees. Don’t have too many events but, if required, make sure they’re structured and predictable. Set agendas for meetings and allow participants to submit written information in advance. Also consider implementing a meeting policy where employees with autism do not need to go if their attendance isn’t essential.

Reducing sensory stimuli as much as possible, such as by replacing fluorescent lights and providing ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones can help people with autism to better cope with their working environment. Make hours predictable but allow for flexible start or finish times if preferred.

What can you do?

Dyslexia and autism are just two invisible disabilities you might encounter in the workplace.

Your approach to invisible disabilities should be the same as your approach to more visible and easily identifiable conditions – even though they are more difficult to identify.

Talk to your occupational health department for advice about what you can do to help employees. Also speak to employees with these conditions to assess what you can do to help with their day-to-day work requirements.

Try to be creative on how you implement reasonable adjustments – one size won’t fit all, so see what works for individuals who need these adjustments in workspaces, working styles, and to your policies.

If you need help and advice regarding invisible disabilities, please do not hesitate to contact me on 0113 350 4030 or at emma.roberts@scesolicitors.co.uk.

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SCE Solicitors is a boutique employment law practice based in Leeds which advises clients nationwide. Please note that the information in this blog is to provide information of general interest in a summary manner and should not be construed as individual legal advice. Readers should consult with SCE Solicitors or other professional counsel before acting on the information contained here.

Emma Roberts
Latest posts by Emma Roberts (see all)
Emma Roberts

Emma is a trainee solicitor at SCE Solicitors. Emma commenced her training contract in September 2018 and is currently working in the employment law department assisting director Samira Cakali. Emma also assists in the running of the firm’s myHR service where she can support you in the day-to-day management of your staff.

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