International Wheelchair Day highlights the need to improve support for ALL disabled workers

What is a ‘disability’?

International Wheelchair Day is a poignant time for Employers to recognise that disability can take many forms.  Illnesses such as cancer, arthritis, migraine, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, stress, depression, asthma, heart problems and epilepsy may not necessarily require the user to need a wheelchair – and those who do need a wheelchair may or may not need it every day.  Invisible and sometimes intermittent illnesses can be just as disabling and disorienting for the sufferer as a physical injury or disability.

Christine Husbands, managing director, RedArc said:

“We’re using International Wheelchair Day to highlight the point that because wheelchair users have a very visible disability, many employers still think they’re ticking the right box if they have made their premises easily accessible. Support for people with disabilities needs to go way beyond this.

“Around a fifth of the workforce has a disability and where that is a hidden disability, the employer is even less likely to provide emotional support for the individual, simply because the condition is not as immediately obvious.”

What support will disabled employees require?

While employers typically consider making physical adjustments, or changing hours or duties, having access to mental wellbeing support is a huge benefit – but ‘mental health support’ is pidgeonholed as suitable ‘for employees with a mental illness’.

RedArc believes more employers need to understand the importance of mental wellbeing support for workers with a physical disability, too.  This group is particularly vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions.

Individuals who acquire a new disability usually require most support – their reactions are likely to range from shock, denial, anger, acknowledgment and adjustment. Even if the physical condition is well-managed, this process is extremely turbulent for anyone to deal with – especially if the individual also has financial concerns or worries about a return to work.


Key mental health considerations for disabled employees

RedArc Nurses have identified key mental health considerations employers should be aware of:

  • Staff with acquired rather than congenital disabilities often find the workplace a harder place to cope as they need to adjust to their new norm.  Dealing with a new disability can have huge consequences for their mental health.
  • Disabled staff may need new skills, either to learn how to work with their new disability and/or to find new opportunities.
  • Disability can affect an individual’s mental wellbeing greatly – they begin to feel invisible, which affects their confidence.
  • Disabled staff often feel judged – especially if their level of disability varies. This can increase isolation and feeling of low self-worth.
  • Depending on the type and severity of the disability, tasks can take longer to do and this can be demoralising which can mean they avoid tasks altogether which further increases the risk of isolation, loneliness and depression.
  • No matter how supportive the employer, many recently disabled people find it difficult to talk to their employer and line manager.

Christine Husbands believes disabled workers eventually become more valuable to employers through this process:

“Many disabled people can acquire resilience as a result of overcoming challenges in daily life and living through major change. Some individuals who have been through the life-changing experience of disability find they develop empathy with other people, can solve problems and resolve conflicts which can mean they become even more of an asset to the employer.

“However, to get to this point, many disabled individuals will need a great deal of emotional and mental health support. The good news is that every kind of workplace can be made inclusive through changes in working patterns and a supportive culture.”


Many employers could already be paying for mental health support

Often employers are unaware of the full range of add-on benefits provided by their Group Risk or EAP.   Usually, mental health support, such as telephone advice, counselling and/or one to one support is provided, and maybe even training for HR and line managers too. Many policies provide mental support to all employees even if the financial aspect of the insurance is limited to specific groups of staff.   The support on these policies is delivered by external professionals who are experts at what they do.

Christine Husbands explains:

“Having a third party to intervene in mental health issues is often a better solution for everyone as employees value confidentiality, can get faster access to support, and that support is usually delivered by parties that are more qualified than anyone within the organisation – all of which point toward a faster recovery.

“Let’s use International Wheelchair Day to break down the barriers about providing mental health support to employees with disabilities – both visible and invisible.”