How to support workers with ‘hidden’ disabilities



Read time
7 mins

Discover how dyslexia, autism and dyspraxia can affect employees’ behaviour at work, and what adjustments you can make to support them

While many HR professionals might be confident in their knowledge of employment law related to more common, visible disabilities such as mobility problems, so-called ‘hidden’ disabilities – such as dyslexia and autism – pose a much greater challenge.

In a recent Ciphr employment law seminar, Matthew Huggett, partner at Carbon Law Partners, explained how employers can best support people with these conditions.

What does the law say?

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

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

And it’s your duty to make reasonable adjustments for those employees. The Act states the keys to managing this duty are to:

  1. Identify the circumstances at work that are causing the disadvantage (eg application of the company’s standard absence or performance procedure)
  2. Understand if the disadvantage is caused by the health condition
  3. Explore what (reasonable) steps you can take to alleviate the disadvantage

So you need to identify your PCPs: the provision, criterion or practice that places an individual at a disadvantage because of their disability.

But an employer needs to know about an employee’s disability for changes to be implemented. The 2010 Equality Act also says (in paragraph 20 of schedule 8) 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.”

And this is a potential problem with hidden disabilities – such as dyslexia, autism (including Asperger’s) and dyspraxia – with growing case law involving these conditions.

Understanding ‘hidden’ disabilities


A person with dyslexia may:

  • Read and write slowly
  • Confuse the order of letters
  • Have difficulty taking notes or copying text
  • Have poor writing
  • Struggle to meet deadlines, and with planning and organisation

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
  • Allocate them a private workspace

There are several cases that offer guidance on how (and how not) to support dyslexic staff.  In Sangha v Chemicare UK Limited, the claimant – a pharmacist – resigned because of criticism from his supervisor relating to his ability to work in the role because of his dyslexia: the claimant was told to work more quickly and to look for other careers. The former point was cited as unfavourable treatment (because it was discrimination arising from his disability) and was not justified.

Autism (including Asperger syndrome)

Someone with autism or Asperger’s (a form  of 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

They may also have above-average verbal skills and be 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 who may perceive them as ‘weird’ or ‘annoying’. 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 (ie 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 provide ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones) – can also help people with autism to better cope with their working environment. Make hours predictable, but allow for flexible start or finish times if preferred.

There are a number of cases involving people with autism. In Forsyth v Harris (t/a The Sportsman ), the claimant was an autistic kitchen worker whose shift numbers decreased and was then late to work one day. The claimant was accused of being rude to the manager and, when apologising, disclosed his autism. He was dismissed for being late, rude and incompetent. Mr Forsyth successfully claimed for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination because his employer knew he was disabled, he required clear, preferably written, instructions, and he wasn’t warned about the risk of dismissal if performance didn’t improve.


Symptoms of dyspraxia (or DCD – developmental coordination disorder ) include:

  • Poor balance, posture and/or clumsiness
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulties writing, typing and/or driving
  • Issues with time management and personal organisation
  • Perception problems (eg sitting too close or talking too loudly)
  • Emotional difficulties (eg becoming stressed, anxious and/or depressed easily)

You can help employees with dyspraxia with a number of reasonable adjustments, such as:

  • Help with time management and prioritisation
  • Guidance on instructions
  • Advice on how to cope with distractions
  • Tips on relaxation techniques

In South Staffordshire and Shropshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust v Billingsley, Ms Billingsley, a data input clerk with dyspraxia , was slower and more error-prone than her colleagues. To rectify this, training of 50 hours, followed by 40 hours, was recommended. Her performance improved after the first 20 hours of training. Her supervisor left, the remaining training hours were not provided, and Ms Billingsley was dismissed. The dismissal was found to be unfair and discriminatory because of the unfavourable treatment in relation to performance management before the adjustments were put in place, and for inadequate implementation of the recommended adjustments (ie only 20 hours of training were provided, not the recommended 90 hours).

What can HR teams do?

Dyslexia, autism and dyspraxia are just three hidden disabilities you might encounter in the workplace. Your approach to hidden 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 and candidates. Also speak to employees with these conditions to assess what you can do to help with their day-to-day work requirements.

And 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.