How To Support Coworkers With a Disability?

Citizens with disabilities are often under-employed – but they might have the skills and competencies you require within your organization.

It is important to consider how your organization can tap this potential source of employees.

Coworkers with a disability can have either permanent (e.g., a hearing or mobility impairment) or temporary (e.g., a treatable illness or temporary impairment resulting from an accident).

A disability can also be visible (e.g., a wheelchair or white cane indicates the person has a disability) or invisible (e.g., a mental illness).

Disabled citizens are more capable and accomplished than you probably think. Hiring employees with disabilities is a good deed and good publicity for your organization. Disability is an essential component of healthy diversity.

Disabled employees are more dedicated and less likely to turn over than non-disabled workers. Hiring more disabled employees is good for the company because it helps in employee branding.

Ways To Support Coworkers With a Disability.

Discourage ableist language.

When a disability awareness movement addresses language, they tend to focus mostly on which terms should and shouldn’t be used to refer to disabled coworkers.

In a way, the solution is easy: use the terminology each disabled coworker prefers for themselves.

The next step, and probably a more deep one, is to cut back on seemingly inoffensive but corrosive labels and adjectives we say every day without thinking. For example:

• Lazy, clumsy, lame, blind as a bat

• Short, skinny, fat

• Dumb, stupid, moron, idiot, slow, challenged

• Crazy, insane, out of your mind

Many employees won’t consider all of these words gravely offensive in every situation. Nonetheless, they are negative and degrading, with particular resonance for disabled coworkers.

Some, like “the R-word,” should be forbidden. In any case, offices where even the mildest of these words are constantly and gleefully used tend to grind down employees with disabilities, even if they aren’t directed specifically at them.

Whether or not you ban expressions like this outright, the essential thing is to pay attention and be aware of their ugly effects.

Learn to recognize behaviors and communication styles that may be related to disabilities.

Coworkers with a disability

Both visibly obvious and invisible impairment can sometimes affect how we come across to others. For instance:

• Coworkers with mobility impairments and who use wheelchairs or crutches are often seen as “too slow” and “in the way.”

• Coworkers with sensory or cognitive impairment sometimes communicate differently in ways others interpret as hard to understand, inattentive, humorless, or rude.

• Impairments often distort expected body language like handshakes, eye contact, and ways of sitting and standing in communal situations in ways that seem off-putting.

Before dismissing a disabled worker as awkward, rude, or “not fitting in,” managers and coworkers should consider how a person’s impairment may be affecting their interactions with others.

Don’t make disability humor, even if a disabled worker says it’s fine.

Tolerating or encouraging disability-themed jokes in the office space is always a bad idea. Like derogatory words, any particular joke may be harmless.

But with time and repetition, they can build an increasingly hostile and dispiriting surrounding for disabled employees, even if they don’t take offense right away.

Plus, it’s essential to remember that disabled employees are often under many social burdens to “go along” and be “cool with” humor at their expense.

A bit of self-deprecating banter may be OK now and then. But thoughtless, cruel, and tacky impairment jokes shouldn’t be allowed to flourish in an office space.

Make sure all organization events, both formal and informal, are accessible.

Remember to invite disabled workers to engage fully in social events. But there is also a rack up of other ways you might unintentionally boycott them if you don’t pay attention.

In general, it’s a good idea to dodge venues with stairs, no accessible restrooms, long walks to get there, or that lack environment to sit and rest. Outdoor occasions are popular but require very specific modifications to be accessible.

Acknowledge food allergies and workers who may not be able to drink alcohol. Also, employee social occasions should be announced well in advance, so handicapped employees can arrange transportation and others they might need to participate.

Provide accommodations to disabled coworkers. 

Don’t make a spectacle of the cribs and special arrangements you make for disabled workers.

Don’t show off, and resist the appeal to hover and micromanage in a very visible way. And try not to discuss cribs in front of other workers.

At the same time, don’t treat cribs like a deep dark secret. As often as possible, work with disabled workers to keep their coworkers appropriately “in the loop” about cribs.

This can help lower speculation, gossip, and resentment over why one worker is getting “special treatment” that their teammates don’t understand.

Allow each impaired employee to control the terms of their confidentiality and/or disclosure with other staff.

Different impairments call for different levels of confidentiality and disclosure. Mental health and intellectual disabilities carry more stigma than physical and sensory impairments, with many personal exceptions.

Also, invisible impairments tend to generate more mystery, speculation, and doubt, making open debate potentially helpful but also risky. The key is to debate the pros and cons of talking openly about an employee’s impairment and workplace accommodations but ultimately leaving opinions about disclosure up to each person.

Teach employees correct ways to express concern and offer help to disabled employees.

One of the ways otherwise kind, decent employees go wrong in dealing with impaired employees is to overthink whether and how to communicate concern and offer help.

Follow this basic formula: If you want to ask if an impaired employee is OK and offer help, then ask! Just make sure you welcome their answer, no matter what it is. Don’t push. Don’t insist. And don’t get bitter if they say no or don’t welcome your offer.

Deal immediately with insulting comments related to employees’ impairments.

There is no adequate space for employees or managers to make fun of disabled workers, especially in a civic way, especially if it’s because of their impairment.

The most “harmless” and “all in fun” derogatory remarks must be stopped immediately. You don’t have to be punished for it, but you can’t ignore it or wait until it gets worse.

Don’t overlook the possibility that an impaired employee might join in the bullying of another impaired employee.

People with impairments can be ableists too. A disabled employee in difficult social situations sometimes feels enormous pressure to side with their “normal” employees in targeting another disabled employee to fit in.

There is also a fairly trivial school of thought within parts of the disability community that disabled employees who want to be accepted and “get ahead” should be easy-going and not complain about petty jokes and ableism.

Encouraging everyone to check and change their ableist habits can do a lot to make all impaired employees feel safe and accepted.

Learn something about the cultural norms and pressures of people with different impairments and overlapping backgrounds.

There are scores of specific types of impairments and several broad categories. While you don’t have to learn all the medical and communal details of each one, it’s the best idea to have a basic understanding of the differences between vast disability experiences. For example:

• Visible vs. invisible impairments often result in different kinds and degrees of stigma and call for different disclosure calculations.

• Lifelong vs. later in life impairments can affect the amount of social integration an employee has had, the quality of their learning, and their overall comfort and experience with their impairments.

• Physical, sensory, intellectual, learning, and mental health impairments, chronic pain, and chronic illness have various practical effects and call for different types of accessibility and accommodation.

Finally, it’s essential to acknowledge that disability and other “marginalized” identities overlap and combine in distinctive ways. An employee of color who is also disabled can experience both ableism and racism.

Women with impairments contend with sexism compounded by ableism. And disabled LGBTQ+ employees endure a similar overlapping of identity and prejudices.

It’s not essential to fully understand these “intersections” and have all the correct answers. The key is to be conscious of them and open to helping as best you can.

Too often, the message of impairment awareness ends up being, “People with impairments are just life like anyone else; they just happen to have an impairment!”

This is true in terms of fundamental human worth and potential. Impaired people deserve to be treated with equal fairness and dignity.

Impaired workers with comparable traIning and experience have equal potential for workplace success. And some impaired people come ready to work on day one, requiring little or no accommodation, either practical or social.

But disabilities are real. Being qualified and hardworking doesn’t mean impaired people are the same as other workers.

Many impaired workers require both technical and social adjustments to succeed. Denying these diversities in a misguided attempt to make disability unessential doesn’t work.

Ableist social action can be a profound barrier in the office space as stairs and narrow doorways.

Giving attention to these habits can be the difference between mere nondiscrimination and giving impaired people both the physical and emotional place to excel and bring maximum value to the companies they work for.

Conclusion: 

Coworkers with disabilities are just normal individuals, just like us. In the office space, we can help our coworkers with disabilities in various ways. We can avoid using certain words that might hurt our coworkers.

Even if the coworker is fine with disability jokes, don’t joke about it. Formal or informal parties and events can be organized, keeping our disabled coworkers in mind.

Insulting comments about coworkers should be handled immediately. By implementing these tips, you can support your coworkers with disabilities in office space.  

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