Coworkers with disabilities are more than capable of superior performance, but they do face unique difficulties. And while today’s workplaces are becoming more physically accommodating to disabled employees, managers and coworkers still struggle with how to appropriately respond to their struggles and challenges.
- How much attention should be given to someone’s disability? Is it OK to inquire about it? When and how should you offer help?
- Most employees want to be accommodating but fear causing insult or offense. Frozen by uncertainty, some end up ignoring and/or avoiding their disabled coworkers.
- No one wins when this happens. Here’s how you can help create a welcoming, inclusive work environment.
Put The Individual Before The Disability
Remember that, just like you, your disabled coworkers are complex and unique. Their disabilities affect their lives on many levels, but don’t define who they are.
The language that you use is important. Instead of saying (or thinking), “Sarah is an epileptic,” say, “Sarah has epilepsy.” This restatement recognizes the disability, while putting the individual first.
Avoid singling out disabled coworkers for public recognition or creating special awards that highlight their disabilities. This is not the kind of “awareness” that your disabled coworkers are looking for. They simply want to have happy, productive, hassle-free days in the same way that you do.
The best way to be accommodating and welcoming to anyone is by making a sincere effort to get to know them better.
Observe & Adjust Your Behavior
Everyone has heard the statement, “Walk a mile in my shoes.” Of course you can’t literally experience the obstacles facing a disabled coworker, but you can be thoughtful and considerate in your own behavior. Here are some tips:
- Crouch or sit when speaking to a coworker in a wheelchair. It will feel more personal and natural to both of you while preventing your coworker from forcing his neck into an uncomfortable position.
- Face hearing-impaired coworkers when speaking to them so that they can read your lips.
- Identify yourself to coworkers with visual impairments before engaging in conversation.
- Allow coworkers with speech impairments to finish sentences without interruption. Don’t finish their thoughts or attempt to speak for them. If you’re having difficulty understanding, ask them to repeat what was said, then repeat it for clarification.
- Consider physical aids to be an extension of your coworker’s personal space. Never touch a physical aid without permission. This includes pushing a wheelchair without asking or interacting with a guide dog without permission.
Observe & Adjust Your Behavior
Ask before trying to help by using an open-ended question like, “Chris, may I assist you with that in some way?” This gives your coworker broad latitude in determining how you can help.
- When providing assistance, allow the person you’re helping to take the lead. For example, offer your arm for support rather than trying to hold or lift someone who needs physical assistance.
- Think ahead when planning social activities involving disabled coworkers. Scout any off-site venues to make sure that they’re accommodating to everyone.
- Approach your social interactions with disabled coworkers in exactly the same way you would anyone else. Being accommodating and considerate of someone’s disability doesn’t mean that their disability must dictate how you relate to one another.
In the end, the best way to be accommodating and welcoming to anyone is by making a sincere effort to get to know them better.