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Disability Etiquette At the Workplace: 7 Things to Keep in Mind

The world is filled with all kinds of individuals with varying skill sets, experiences, educational backgrounds, and cultures. Each Individual brings in a unique approach to work.

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The world is filled with all kinds of individuals with varying skill sets, experiences, educational backgrounds, and cultures. Each Individual brings in a unique approach to work. Businesses, however, forget that differently abled people might make up more in skills and experience for their lack of certain human abilities we take for granted.

According to St.Mary’s County Commission for Disabled People, one in five Americans is disabled. Imagine how that number would pile up if you take the rest of the world into consideration.

Over 21.2 million people in the U.S have conditions limiting their involvement in simple physical activities such as walking, reaching, carrying, or climbing stairs. About 12.4 million have physical, mental, or emotional conditions to make it difficult for them to remember, learn or concentrate. Approximately 9.3 million people have sensory problems related to sight or hearing.

In the rush to manage businesses for efficiency, managers forget that a cookie cutter approach won’t work for management — especially with disability etiquette growing as an important aspect of workplace etiquette. If you are managing teams with differently abled people, you might find these tips valuable:

The disability isn’t in the mind and in the heart

Most of prefer others like us — hard and cold, but true. It’s just not in us to accept others the way they are. While this is true for all human relationships, dealing with differently abled people makes it even more difficult for us. For most of us who don’t have to manage others, it’s just a matter of “getting along”. For managers, there’s a lot to do with “getting things done”.

So, here’s the fact, irrespective of how you feel: the disability was not self-inflicted. The person with the disability is probably well qualified, sharp, and just as efficient as anyone else. Their minds are intact and their hearts drip with emotions, feelings, and love.

Beware: Not all disabilities are visible

Not all disabilities are visible. Sometimes, a few disabilities could be in state of debilitation – they grow worse with time.

People could be suffering from loss of eyesight, hearing problems could intensify, seizure disorders could develop, or at a particular stage of mental illness. Now, none of these might be apparent.

If you notice that someone in your team has repeated problems when you call out to them or if someone has to squint at your presentation slides, you know that a few disabilities could well be a part of that person you have to deal with.

Before you engage in speaking engagements

The Job Accommodation Network recommends a few tips on disability etiquette before you take on – or have differently abled people take on – speaking assignments:

  • Never use a companion or another attendant to help you speak to a person with a disability unless absolutely necessary.
  • Look direct and speak with the same level of engagement as you’d with anyone else.
  • Never use the term “disabled person”. If you can, never use the term at all unless you have to write policies including any of these tips.
  • If you are running a presentation using slides at a meeting, make sure you point out what’s on the slide for those who are visually impaired or those with learning disabilities. Don’t take your audience for granted. Further, there are alternative formats of learning available for you to use such as tapes or braille.
  • If you have to engage with people with speech impairments, don’t get into “correction mode”. Also, don’t complete their sentences for them. In fact, if you are asking questions to elicit answers, keep those questions short and pointed.
  • Likewise, when you are dealing with people with hearing impairments, don’t hesitate to use touch. Tap them to get their attention. Speak slowly, clearly, and naturally to establish contact.

Are you getting this right?

Be honest

If you are talking to someone who cannot speak as fast as you do or if they can’t hear you speak, be honest with them. Tell them just what your problem is. Maintain your composure, draw up on the wells of your patience, and tell them softly that you didn’t understand what they just said or ask to find out if they got your point by just nodding or shaking their head.

Over time, you’ll begin to hear and understand. Be yourself. Don’t assume that “disability” is all that differently abled people like to talk about. Use your normal voice. Crack jokes. Be with them the way you’d be with your friends.

They have names, hopes, and desires

Avoid saying “special people”, “disabled people”, and “others”. Every person with disability also has a name. Further, it’s a disability and not a disease. They have a set of skills, they have hopes, and they have desires just as everyone else.

Focus on the person and let go of the disability. Treat adults as adults and kids as kids and forget the disability part. Be considerate. Help them as much as you can when you really need to, which leads us to…

Know how and when to help

People with different abilities are sensitive. They are aware of their disabilities and they strive to be able to function and live like normal people do. That’s why it’s important to know how and when to help. Always introduce yourself or announce your presence.

Offer to help indirectly but don’t get offended when your help isn’t needed.

Be courteous; not condescending

Be patient and never be rude (even if your business were to go bankrupt or if the world were to end in the next 5 minutes). Never discourage their active participation, underestimate their ability to get work done, or take their dignity away from them by not allowing them the freedom to do what they like.

The disabilities are in us if we don’t know how to cross the threshold of attitudinal, programmatic, and architectural barriers that we unconsciously build over time.

When we don’t have the ability to break down these barriers and work with everyone as one, it’s “us” who have a major disability: it’s called attitude.