Disability Etiquette - How to Treat Your Disabled Co-Workers

Every employee has an important role to play in the workplace. As modern organizations realize the need for diversity in the workforce, creating a disabled-friendly work environment is the responsibility of everyone in the company. This means people from the top down need to offer their disadvantaged colleagues support and encouragement to help them be productive at their role and perform to their full potential.

Working with people with disability doesn’t have to be awkward. In situations when you are unsure how to interact with a disabled co-worker, here are some basic tips for you to follow.

Ask before helping

Many people with disability strive for independence, so when you see someone struggling, don’t immediately assume that your help is needed—ask first. But instead of asking “Do you need some assistance?”—which sounds a bit too formal—the better question would be, “Can I help you with that?”

Oftentimes, a person with a disability will let you know when your help is needed. Respect their independence, especially in making decisions for themselves. And in case they do require your help, ask how before taking any action. Give the person the opportunity to accept, decline, or instruct you regarding the aid that they may require to make sure you are not invading anyone’s privacy.

Don’t avoid interaction

Avoiding any awkward moments with a physically challenged co-worker doesn’t mean you should forgo all interactions altogether. Think of how you relate to the rest of your colleagues, especially those who have a different religion or culture than yours. Hopefully, you make it a point to be respectful in all your interactions with them, regardless of your differences. It’s the same mentality you should take with you when talking to a disabled peer. Just as the daily work allows you to get to know the rest of the people in your workplace more deeply, taking the time to converse and communicate with someone living with a disability will help lessen the awkward feeling.

Be respectful with physical contact

For many with disabilities, being lifted is an uncomfortable experience, not only physically, but also emotionally. Thus, most will only request to be carried as a last resort. Again, make sure to ask before helping someone stand, walk, rise, etc., especially when physical contact is necessary. Likewise, let the disadvantaged individual know if you need to touch his or her equipment. Regardless if it’s a cane, wheelchair or scooter, assistive equipment is often treated as part of a disabled individual’s personal space.

Don’t feel sorry

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), signed into law by the US Congress back in 2004, states that “disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the rights of individuals to participate in or contribute to society.” When working with physically challenged co-workers, it helps always to keep this IDEA in mind.

The last thing that disabled people need is your pity and be reminded of their vulnerability. You may think that you’re helping them by feeling sorry, but you’re not. More often, feeling sorry for someone only leads to condescension and does not empower. Instead, try your best to treat your disabled colleagues with dignity. And help them make sure that their disability is not seen by your other colleagues as a tragedy.

Focus on abilities

Drive and work ethic are ingredients of a great employee, and as long as a person is eager to work and has the ability to contribute to the workplace, it often matters little whether they have a disability or not. Many employees with disabilities require little to no assistance to go about their work. Additionally, technology for the disabled has taken many giant strides forward, helping many impaired workers increase their productivity significantly. With these in mind, allow yourself to concentrate more on what your disabled co-workers can do, and less on what they can’t.

Don’t be patronizing

Negativity is inherently harmful, but being overly positive can be detrimental as well. For instance, you may believe that a blind or deaf person has heightened their other senses to superhuman abilities, or that a paraplegic must have extraordinarily strong biceps. Try to put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you would feel if somebody said these things to you.

Even if an employee living with an impairment has successfully learned to adapt to their work environment, more likely than not, they are not looking to be acknowledged or recognized for being able to perform their daily work responsibilities. No one likes being patronized or treated differently. Phrases such as, “You’re so brave” or “I can’t believe you can do that” should be avoided. Not only does this mindset make light of someone’s abilities, but it also tends to make standards too low for people who are basically just like you.

Use ‘person-first’ language

Effective communication helps all parties involved to come to a common understanding. If you must communicate something to a disabled person, speak directly to that person, not to an interpreter. If you must acknowledge someone’s impairment, use phrases like “Dave who has paraplegia” instead of “that guy with the bum leg.”

Likewise, remember that different types of disabilities will require different approaches to communication. For instance, if you have a co-worker who’s blind, always announce when you enter or leave the room, and end conversations properly with a goodbye. If your co-worker is hard of hearing, don’t block your face with anything to allow him or her to read your lips, and don’t turn your head away while talking.

The takeaway

Always keep in mind that people with disabilities are just like anyone else in the workplace and deserve to be treated as the perfectly capable colleagues they are. Try your best to treat them as you would anyone else. If you treat the person like any other colleague, he or she will understand that you’re striving to be respectful toward them, even when you end up saying or doing something awkward or offensive sometimes. They’ll know you didn’t mean it.

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