Hidden Disabilities: Should Our Clients Dare to Declare?

Hidden Disability Symbol

Living with a hidden disability is challenging enough, but when we try to hide it from our workplace we only end up suffering in silence. October is Disability Employment Awareness Month (DEAM), a good time to start some conversations and share our personal stories of living and working with hidden disabilities.

Don’t “DIS” Our “ABILITY”

The question often comes up with our clients about if and when they should self-declare a disability to an employer. Everyone’s circumstance is different but, at the core, we all share the same internal experience. We want to feel safe, heard, and understood. When we cannot be our true self, we may be suppressing the best part of us. Simply declaring a disability is not the solution as it does not address the person behind the ability.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word “dis” includes “to treat with disrespect” or “to find fault with.” They define “ability” as “the quality or state of being able,” “competence in doing something,” and “natural aptitude or acquired proficiency.”

Wikipedia attributes the origin of the phrase “Don’t DIS my ABILITY” to an educational public-awareness campaign in New South Wales, Australia. The campaign invited people to reconsider their relationships with and attitudes toward people with disabilities. I would like to extend that invitation to all of us. Until individuals with disabilities feel able to fully embrace their own unique abilities, then they are being “dis”ed. They need to feel safe to have conversations about both their strengths and weaknesses so that they’re free to step fully into their stories.

Risks and Benefits – Why Self-Declare?

The Government of Canada promotes self-declaring as being a positive way of leading change and helping to create a diverse and inclusive public service that is truly representative of Canada. A related New York Times article states, “Hiding a disability takes emotional energy that could be better spent elsewhere, like doing one’s job.”

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) reports that many individuals fear that hiring officials will focus on their disability rather than their qualifications. Other applicants dread stigma or discrimination. They realize that many employers do not have experience working with people who have disabilities. They feel that employers might believe that a person with a disability could not perform job tasks or that accommodations would be difficult to implement.

Both sides are true. As an employee with a hidden disability, I can certainly perform the tasks included in my job, but perhaps not exactly the way my employer would prefer they be performed. It is my responsibility to self-declare to better enable awareness, acceptance, and accommodation.

I am a person living with ADHD. This is my story.

Let’s Talk About ADHD and its Family Members

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder. People with ADHD have difficulty maintaining attention or have episodes of hyperactivity that interfere with their daily lives. It often co-exists with depression and/or anxiety, and vice versa. It is a confusing, contradictory, inconsistent, and frustrating condition and is overwhelming to people who live with it every day.

Now, let me introduce you to RSD and its relative RRE. They live in the family of ADHD and, like all good family members, they have their own personalities and can trigger our emotional responses.

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD), a term coined by prominent ADHD expert Dr. William Dodson, refers to the extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception that a person has been rejected, criticized, or fails to meet their own high standards. The result is feelings of guilt, shame, and rejection, often affecting not just mental health but physical health as well.

On the flip side, say hello to Recognition Responsive Euphoria (RRE) — the  joy and self-validation felt from the perception of positive recognition. Just as a little negativity can cause an individual to tumble into anxiety and panic, a drop of praise can build into a tsunami of hope and motivation. An ADHD brain can experience a meaningful and powerful zing of energy and esteem with every word of encouragement, praise, or approval that’s received. The smallest gesture can power euphoria.

Our Hidden Demons: Riding the Roller Coaster

According to the website Thriving with ADHD: “Individuals with ADHD often experience difficulties regulating their emotions. These challenges are thought to have the greatest impact on wellbeing and self-esteem, far more than the core symptoms associated with ADHD (hyperactivity-impulsivity and inattention).”

The inability to modulate sensory experience and expression can result in excessive sensitivity to the outside world. This could be attributed to lower levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that  allows us to regulate emotional responses and take action to achieve specific rewards. Dopamine is also responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. This is where the family members RSD and RRE come in.

With RSD, the emotional pain the person experiences from a perceived negative threat is real and extreme and so primitive and overwhelming that it sends them spiraling into an abyss of acute and profound dejection. Dr. Dodson observes; “For people with RSD, these universal life experiences are much more severe than for neurotypical individuals. They are unbearable, restricting, and highly impairing.”

On the other hand, the positivity and encouragement of RRE super-charges the brain with the same intensity with which negative feedback deflates it. Providing recognition for good performance helps everyone but takes on a whole new level for people who have ADHD. Globally recognized authority on ADHD, Dr. Edward Hallowell, states; “You will quickly see eyes light up, and the person swing into action like a whirling dervish of positive energy.”

Stepping Into Our Power and Our Stories

The vast majority of adults with an ADHD nervous system are internally — not overtly — hyperactive. Oakville, Ontario-based ADHD Life Coach Diane O’Reilly writes: “People with ADHD are naturally curious, impulsive, chaotic, sensitive, and playful. When we try to live contrary to who we are, using untold energy attempting to be something we’re not and frankly never will be, that hurts us.” Imagine the possibilities if the wasted energy spent on constant caution could be re-directed in positive and productive ways!

“Choosing to embrace our innate creativity not only feels good, it heals our low self-esteem and gives us more confidence. We feel more equipped to meet life, albeit in our own unique and chaotic way. And when we live in harmony with who we are, and how were made, we develop a deep knowing that we are essentially whole and good, just as we are.”

All of us have at least one superpower. But superpowers in ADHD adults can be a tricky thing. Learning specialist Susan Kruger writes: “Your superpower is a natural, ingrained gift. It’s so powerful that you can’t not express it. In some settings, it may help you shine. In others, it may transform into kryptonite.

ADHD is just one example how understanding and openly discussing our differences can help us thrive in our workplaces. It gives us the opportunity to own both our strengths and our weaknesses. We are able to be accommodated, often in fairly simple, inexpensive, and unobtrusive ways, allowing us to use our unique abilities — our superpowers — in the performance of our duties. Open, honest discussions help us to recognize which environments are kryptonite to us versus those which can give us hope and open up the door to a range of possibilities.

As career development professionals, we can help our clients with hidden disabilities find their superpower and the words to express their unique challenges. We can guide them so that they’re able to effectively articulate their triggers and reactions in order to help others learn how to work with them. We can help them step into their power and live authentic lives, claiming the story that is the truth of who they are. Let’s encourage them to embrace all aspects of themselves so that they’re empowered to show up fully present in their lives. Let’s teach them how to surround themselves with positivity, and to feel safe to be different in their work environment. All this is possible through the act of self-declaring.

Let’s keep the conversations around hidden disabilities going throughout the weeks and years beyond Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Be well. Be safe. BOK2BU.

Carol Brochu combines a 30+ year career in HR, operations, and client service with a unique personal and spiritual development journey that has included studies in Mental Health First Aid, energy work, and self-care disciplines. She is a certified yoga and martial arts instructor, mindfulness facilitator, Me First practitioner, CPC member, and Certified Work-Life Strategist.

Image by Laura Brydges on the Facebook Hidden Disability Community

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Thank you so much for the insight into ADHD. I quite honestly never knew that ADHD had “Family” members.

Your article was clear and concise and wasn’t full of the language that a lot of us would not understand.

As one with a hidden dis”ability” myself and working within the employment counselling area, I quite often disclose my own “ability” to my clients who have disclosed to me and are struggle with how and when they should mention to their prospective employer. One of the reasons I disclose my own “ability” is to honestly say to my client that, “Although, I don’t have my whole foot in your shoes, I do have a big toe”, and therefore have an understanding of what trials he/she may be experiencing. In my opinion, my honesty helps to maintain a positive and fruitful relationship within the job search journey and, in the end, together, we can rejoice in their accomplishments along the way.

Thank you Again.

Thanks for your comments Maureen, this year has forced me to take a long hard look on emotional response and acceptance. Its great that you have these conversations with clients as it kind of makes it normal or ok to be different, if that makes sense. There is so much new research in areas of hidden disabilities and I feel it is gaining momentum because we are not hiding any more. We are acknowledging and accepting which I also feel makes it easier to find our right place in the workforce. I honor your journey.

Thank you so much for this article, it has been something that has been on my mind for sometime. I really appreciate the share.

My observation has been that the more people are having these conversations the more new research seems to be coming out. I don’t know if it is because we are evolving or uncovering what was hiding. Keep the conversations going ❤

Informative and concise Carol. Reminds me of the scripture in Psalm 139:13-14 “For You [God] formed my inward parts; You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are Your works; my soul knows it very well.” Everyone is perfect in their own special way – just as God intended! ?

As such, all humanity should be treated with dignity and respect. Thank you for your response ?❤

For anyone working with clients with various levels of ADHD i highly recommend ADDitudemag.com for some great insights into working with the ADHD brain and coping tips during the pandemic. Our brains are wired different but also react differently under stress.

Carol, this is such a thoughtful article. Thank you for writing it. This is very important education.

Thanks Lotte, there is an increasing number of adults getting diagnosed later in life. When we can finally make sense of our triggers we don’t need to hide anymore. We can recognize and step into our superpowers. We can be ok with who we are❤