A Little Disability Etiquette Goes a Long Way
Tips for working alongside colleagues with disabilities
For most people, a day at the office can be a lackluster, though achievable, task. We show up by car or train, grab some coffee and spend eight hours in our PC-equipped cubicles and on conference calls with co-workers.
But for a large number of Americans, the daily grind is a daily headache. For these folks, the computer may not be navigable, the telephone may not be useful, and the commute could take twice as long. I’m talking about the more than 20 million people of working age with disabilities.
Disabled workers today have stronger workplace rights, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but they still struggle with the physical aspects of their handicaps as well as barriers that prohibit their full participation, such as trying to cope with technology that’s designed for the able-bodied. It’s no surprise, then, that the disabled working-age population holds the country’s highest unemployment rate, according to U.S. Census data.
As baby boomers age, U.S. employers are projected to face a shortage of 12 million skilled workers by 2010 and 20 million by 2020. With that in mind, employers have taken impressive steps in the last few years to make it easier for the disabled to assimilate into the workplace.
Companies’ investments in telecommunications have allowed technology such as instant messaging and home networking to flourish, giving the disabled more flexibility to do their jobs in less-conventional ways. The ADA, which requires that employers supply “reasonable accommodations” to help a disabled worker perform his or her job more effectively, is now a much larger part of the private-sector lexicon. Some companies, like Google and Pepsico, also include disability inclusion in their hiring strategies.
If you don’t already work side-by-side with someone who has a qualified physical or mental disability, you’re likely to in the near future. To help further their chances of professional and social success in the workplace, follow these basic rules of disability etiquette:
1. Say hello. Treat the person as any other individual, not as someone who needs pity or special treatment. If you can, try to orient yourself to their specific needs.
2. Refer to the person first. In conversation, say “the person who is deaf” instead of “the deaf person.”
3. Use everyday words. It’s completely acceptable to say “It was good to see you” and “See you soon” to a person who is blind.
4. Ask first. Don’t touch a wheelchair user’s chair or grab a visually impaired person’s arm without first asking if they want assistance. Let a person who is visually impaired take your arm, not the other way around.
5. Give cues. Wave your hands to get the attention of a person who is deaf. You can also facilitate a conversation with a person who is blind by giving verbal cues and asking questions.
6. Be considerate. Sit down to meet a person who uses a wheelchair at eye level. Give someone with a speech impairment extra time to finish a sentence – don’t do it for them.
7. Don’t be shy. Offer your handshake to a person with a limb impairment; he or she may shake your hand in an different way. Or ask to take notes at a meeting for a person who is deaf.
8. Think logistically. Mobility impaired persons are prone to slips and falls, so keep floors clear of clutter. Make a note of accessible routes.
9. Get the facts first. Someone who may appear drunk or disorderly may in fact have a disability that causes involuntary body movements and slurred speech, such as cerebral palsy.
10. Encourage participation. Like anyone else, a person with a disability is more likely to succeed at work if he or she is socially involved. Most likely, he or she can tell you what accommodations will be necessary to make it work.
Follow these guidelines and you’ll be well on your way to making a positive difference in the life of a co-worker with a disability. And you’ll never look at the daily grind in the same way again.
Suzanne Robitaille writes on disability issues in the workplace and lifespace. She is also the founder of abledbody, a provider of expert information and know-how to inspire and maximize the ability in every body.