How to support those with invisible disabilities: Insights from people who have them
Dec 3, 2020

According to the World Health Organization World Report on Disability, 15% of the world’s population, or more than 1 billion people, are living with a disability. Of this number, it is estimated that 450 million are living with a mental or neurological condition – something affecting their daily life that people around them might not even know about.

What can we do to support the many people with invisible disabilities living and working around us? To find out, we chatted with four 3Mers who shared their experiences with invisible disabilities.

Understand that differences are beneficial

Judy Pearlson, clinical performance improvement consultant at 3M, has a unique perspective when it comes to invisible disabilities. Not only has she experienced them herself, she’s helped provide support for people with them. Before joining 3M, Judy was a mental health nurse for individuals with acute or chronic illnesses and conditions which severely affected their day-to-day functioning. When she realized she herself was struggling with depression, she was working at a psychiatric facility which viewed depression as a biological medical issue that required treatment. So, she reached out to a psychiatrist she worked with who confirmed her suspicions.

“Unfortunately, after having a baby, I had treatment-resistant depression with ups and downs lasting five years before it was really under control,” she explains.

Judy says that a combination of resilience and the right support were crucial in navigating her depression. An example of that type of support is the 3M Employee Assistance Program (EAP) , which provides resources for consultation services for employees. “Reaching out to 3M’s EAP has been so helpful when I’ve noticed rising work stress. I can get immediate assistance to talk through work situations with someone who understands and can verify that the situation is truly stressful. I can then decide if I can manage the situation myself or if I should reach out to my psychiatrist for a medical evaluation,” she describes. She says she has also benefited from being a part of 3M’s disAbility Network, an Employee Resource Network dedicated to support people with disabilities and those whose lives are touched by them.

To Judy, it’s important for people to learn about disabilities and prioritize creating a safe environment for those who may be perceived as ‘different'. “I want all people, not just 3Mers, to understand that we are all different in some way, and that these differences enhance our perspectives,” she explains. “I am comfortable in my own skin and confident in my skills and abilities. I do not look at myself as someone with a disability and want others to do the same when they work with me. I just have a unique perspective that should be valued, as we all do.”

Be considerate and flexible

Gareth Beynon, 3M Europe, Middle East and Africa regulatory affairs specialist, was 17 when he started to lose his vision; 18 months later, he had his first corneal transplant. After receiving transplants in both eyes, his vision significantly improved, until it started to deteriorate again in 2004, when he was in his third year as an employee at 3M.

“When my vision started to deteriorate the second time, I started to feel very scared and vulnerable. My daughter was five and I had a mortgage to pay and was worried about losing the career that I loved. That was when I started to experience depression,” he describes.

Gareth says that the Occupational Health team at 3M was extremely helpful in advising him and his supervisor on how to handle both his vision loss and his depression. “3M supported my sick leave, put me in touch with a counseling service and made adjustments so that I didn’t need to work in a well-lit lab with white walls and dry air, as those conditions made my eyes very sensitive,” he explains. He says that since 2008, Gareth has continued to move around and find roles that challenge him. His vision may limit him from a few roles, but with accommodations, this has been a relatively minor issue.

Gareth hopes that all departments within 3M and other companies will take employees with disabilities into account when making decisions and wants people to recognize that those with alternative abilities are just as productive. With the right tools, there are no barriers in their way. “We need people to be considerate and tolerant, as sometimes we need to manipulate information into a format that better suits us. For example, sometimes I need to enlarge text and change colors to make something easier to read. We are all creative and imaginative people, and the more people use built-in accessibility tools, the easier it is for everyone to absorb content.”

Ask thoughtful questions

Constance Gullickson, sourcing analyst at 3M, is a carrier of muscular dystrophy, but doesn’t exhibit any physical signs besides getting tired easily. In fact, she didn’t even know she was a carrier until her son was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a muscle-wasting disease with a life expectancy of 20-25 years, in 2012.

Constance began to experience anxiety and depression after his diagnosis. “There have been so many moments of frustration, anger, sadness, guilt, confusion and many hours of crying,” she says. “No matter how hard I would fight the feelings of anxiety and depression, they were always there lingering.”

Unfortunately, she says other people’s actions played a big part in her frustrations. “As it has been said many times, don’t judge a book by its cover. When my son lost his ability to walk when he was 10, people would stare. I was once approached by a woman who told me that if my son would lose some weight he could probably get up and walk. Little did she know, he is on steroids for heart and lung longevity, which makes it hard to keep weight off and contributes to weight gain,” she explains. “I’d love it if people would be curious and ask questions and learn, rather than just staring and judging without knowing what is really going on.”

As for her anxiety and depression, she does her best to work through it by taking her dogs for long walks or practicing yoga. She says she knows it’s not anything to be ashamed of and doesn’t define her: “It takes all kinds of people to make the world go ‘round.”

Know that there are good days and bad days

Sharon Olevano, 3M industrial hygienist, was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder nearly 15 years ago. Prior to starting treatment, she would have extreme highs and lows, each drawn out for long periods of time before settling back to her “normal.” With treatment, the highs and lows would only last a day or so, but there was a noticeable change in her demeanor when trying new medications.

Sharon credits 3M’s Employee Assistance Program for helping her find and maintain her treatment path. “They were able to refer me to doctors and therapists who matched my personality and what I was looking to get out of treatment,” she explains.

She says that when she started treatment, there was very little recognition or understanding of invisible disabilities. Though the world has come a long way, she still wants people to recognize that those with Bipolar Disorder might act differently based on if it’s a good day or bad day for them. “I have side effects from my medication. On a good day, when everything is balanced, I have slower thought processing, it is harder for me to do complex math and I have trouble speaking,” she explains. Overall, she wants to emphasize the importance of being understanding of others and giving them the benefit of the doubt on “off” days because you don’t know what they might be going through.

She’d also like others to know that someone else with Bipolar Disorder might display in a different manner depending on their treatment course. “Mine is only one type of invisible disability, but we all bring something to the table.”

Continuing to foster an environment that provides fair opportunities and support for employees like Judy, Gareth, Constance and Sharon, is something 3M is deeply committed to, says Ivan Fong, senior vice president, general counsel & secretary, and executive sponsor of 3M’s disAbility Network.

“3M’s culture of inclusion means that we must raise awareness, reduce stigma and demonstrate fairness toward those with invisible disabilities. Although some disabilities are obvious and visible, others are less so. Invisible disabilities can include debilitating conditions that impair an individual’s physical, mental or neurological capabilities without visible signs. We strive for a workplace that respects, values and welcomes the contributions of all our talent, including those with disabilities, visible and invisible,” said Fong.

 If you want to work somewhere where you feel and are supported, check out our Careers site.

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