This is a story of Alice. She is an assistant retail store manager and she has a handicap. Alice has multiple sclerosis (MS). Her disability is not clear even though she has had it for many years. She fights it daily and she tries not to let it show.

If you looked at Alice you would see a fit woman in her late 40’s. Staying healthy by working out – this is one of the ways she has kept the disease from progressing more rapidly. She knows that stress is a trigger and her workout schedule helps to reduce stress in her life.

Some of the symptoms of multiple sclerosis are not always blaring to the casual observer. Because Alice has had this disease for a while, she knows how to cover it up.

If Alice becomes stressed or overtired, the symptoms rear their ugly head – she may lose coordination or stumble, experience cognitive confusion or battle speech problems.

To her boss or co-worker, these symptoms signal a performance issue even though her disability has been documented. It is easy to forget about disabilities especially if they are not clearly evident every day. The easiest disabilities to remember are physical disabilities. It’s hard to ignore what you can see.

The toughest disabilities have symptoms that are subtle, sporadic or manifest themselves cognitively. Sometimes it is not clear if the disability is causing the behavior or if your co-worker is a bad performer. The fact is disabilities create limitations and no matter what you think someone can do, they may not be able to do it or do it as well as you.

So what can you do to help a co-worker that has a disability? As discussed earlier, stress reduction is one of the triggers and there are some things you can do to help reduce stress for someone with a disability.

The natural assumption is that stress is self-imposed. Consider this – stress is also caused by other people and their biases.

People close to Alice cause stress every day and they probably don’t realize it. A majority of workplace stress is initiated by her management and her co-workers in their day-to-day interactions.

Here are some situations that cause workplace stress:

  • Weight restrictions are ignored
  • Training fails to accommodate cognitive or physical limitations
  • Use of the handicapped parking space is challenged despite a state approved disability license plate
  • Work schedule fails to give adequate rest time between shifts
  • Disability related behaviors are criticized – openly or privately
  • Poor performance becomes the main focus of disability related behaviors

Here’s the reality. What her co-workers and management do not see is that she collapses when she gets home. It takes a lot of energy and focus to stay positive and do her best at work. Every day she faces workplace stress because her co-workers do not see her disability and assume she can do what they do naturally.

Alice hears non-supportive comments about her disability through the gossip and workplace grapevine. The comments are hurtful. Instead of her boss and co-workers trying to help her, she feels like she’s fighting a workplace battle every day.

It’s enough to deal with her disability privately and she tries not to call attention to herself. Alice does not complain she simply wants to be treated fairly. Being treated fairly does not mean she expects to be treated equally because she will never be on an equal playing field with the healthy.