Disabilities come in all forms and most employees don’t realize that many of their colleagues have a condition that qualifies them as disabled in some way. Organizations can create a positive work environment and culture that brings out the best in their fellow team members with or without disabilities by creating a work atmosphere that fosters creativity, cooperation, trust and respect. Especially a respect and acknowledgement for what people can accomplish for the good of the team.
As with anything that differs from what might be regarded as “normal”, employees do not typically want to disclose a disabling condition for fear they might be judged or not presented with the same opportunities as their co-workers. Therefore, their condition may remain invisible. A secret, if they can.
But first, let’s get to the fundamentals, especially the language we use and the thinking that goes with it. People, who have a disabling condition, have a condition. They are not the condition. For example, many people regard a person with blindness as a blind person. But blindness, like many other conditions, is a matter of degrees. Even a person with complete sight loss, might still have sufficiently acute perceptions to be able to navigate freely in public places. So we would say that they HAVE a visual impairment – not that they are a blind person. Deafness too is a gradient scale, but of hearing. Additionally, we would certainly never say a person who has cancer is cancerous any more than we should say a person with diabetes is a diabetic.
And watch what you say. “Blind as a bat” is an old colloquialism which was never really true – bats “see” using a means other than their eyes to swoop in on mosquitos in full flight. And “deaf and dumb” likewise was never really true – deafness has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence. A good friend of mine is nearing completion of her PhD in Biology, yet she has severe hearing loss at times.
Organizations can ensure that employees with disabilities feel comfortable disclosing their disability and coming to work each day by removing the barriers of judgment, stereotypes and mistrust that may exist. A tense environment can impact a team member’s involvement in daily tasks or their loyalty to the organization, eventually resulting in decreased productivity. Creating an inclusive and trusting culture opens up opportunities for collaboration and creates a sense of mutual respect among co-workers.
Here are a few tips to help you ensure you’re treating your colleagues with the upmost respect and creating an ideal workplace for employees with disabilities.
- While it’s a no brainer, communicating with your team is important in all aspects of the workplace, but it’s also important how you go about it. For example, if you see a coworker with a hearing aid, don’t start yelling at them. Raising your voice introduces emotions that you may not intend and they will most certainly feel those emotions emanating from you. Speak as you normally would until asked by that person for clarification.
- Employees working with someone who is visually impaired should treat them like any other person they might encounter and be willing to help, if asked.
- Co-workers might have a myriad of other conditions that you know nothing about and for which you are completely unprepared. Your inquiry about such a condition should be limited to the kinds of questions you might ask if a person had a big wart on the end of their nose – leave it alone, don’t draw attention to it. It’s embarrassing to them to have it, so if the wart isn’t affecting their work, then let it be.
- If working with someone who uses a wheelchair, make no assumptions. There are many conditions for which the use of a wheelchair is elective. The old phrase “wheelchair bound” is often no longer applicable. A person with a broken leg often uses a wheelchair for a few days or weeks, but is certainly not “wheelchair bound,” as is the case for someone with new prosthetics. And when communicating with them, follow common courtesies – get eye level – pull up a chair.
- At certain times, a colleague with a disability may need assistance in performing physical tasks or something job-related. Again, assume nothing. But if asked for help, be ready to lend a hand. Without judgment, inquiry, or asking for reasons. Do it, lift the box and move on.
- People who have a disabling condition often have devices or even animals to aid them in bringing the universe around them into equilibrium with their limitations. These items are an extension of the person themselves – much like an arm or a leg. Leave it alone. And if it’s an animal, let the animal do its job without interruption. Respect is key.
- Don’t be surprised to learn that many of the people I describe here are as determined to succeed as you are, or perhaps more so. Many have acquired their condition as an adult, so they have known success – in school, in society, in careers. And many are so determined that they are resolved to not let a little “condition” get in the way of reaching their goals.
Having a disabling condition changes your perspective on life, sometimes in an instant. Every single person on Earth is literally one nanosecond from acquiring a disabling condition – be it from an accident, or a genetic anomaly. But for many, does not change your ability to perform quality work. Peak Performers has been successfully employing people with disabilities for more than 20 years for the State of Texas and we’ve seen our employees excel in many challenging environments. First and foremost it has been our absence of judgment – an extension of trust and confidence that has enabled our entire team to flourish. Limitations are an inherent part of this universe, but as humans, we have the power to overcome – even people with “conditions.”
About the Author: The author’s name is Charlie Graham. Charlie Graham is the founder and CEO of Peak Performers, a nonprofit staffing agency headquartered in Austin, Texas. Over the last 20 years, Charlie has led Peak Performers to employ and transition thousands of people who have disabilities into family wage jobs in and around Central Texas, increasing opportunities for individual professional growth and economic prosperity. To learn more about Peak Performers, visit: www.peakperformers.org.