Disability Awareness in the Workplace
Employers have been encouraged to hire individuals with disabilities for decades. However, regardless of the push by government agencies, public education programs, and grassroots employment organizations, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the unemployment rate for disabled persons at the end of 2009 hovered at right around 14 percent; that’s nearly twice the unemployment rate of workers without disabilities. Interestingly, the rates are higher for men with disabilities than for women. Disabled individuals are underemployed in most workplaces and this may be at least part of the reason that many non-disabled workers are often confused and embarrassed when interacting with them; they simply don’t know how to look past the disability.
“If all you see is the disability…you might be missing a lot. People with disabilities are just people.” – Meredith Vieira, NBC News
To combat the discomfort that non-disabled workers feel, many workplaces have initiated programs that “teach” workers how to interact with their disabled coworkers – a sort of sensitivity training. These programs also help lessen the burden disabled workers may feel when entering a workplace staffed with individuals who may have previously had few interactions with disabled individuals. Any employer can initiate such a program and should focus on two key areas: communication and interaction.
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It’s not difficult to understand how communicating and interacting with an individual who requires the assistance of a wheelchair to get around might be somewhat different from communicating and interacting with an individual who might be deaf or hard of hearing. However, even though disabled individuals may ultimately have different needs, most basic communication and interaction facts remain the same regardless of the disability.
Understanding How Outdated or Insulting Disability Terms May Be Inappropriate
Many people have no idea that referring to a disabled person as handicapped might be insulting. Handicapped is an outdated term that refers to an individual as the sum of his or her disability. Disabled persons are so much more than that. Referring to someone as disabled removes the disability as a definition of the individual and instead renders it a mere characteristic; no more than someone having blue eyes or red hair, or than someone being tall or short. Refrain from using outdated or insulting terms when interacting with or referring to disabled individuals. Outdated terms include “crippled,” “lame,” and “mute.”
Respect the Needs of Disabled Coworkers
The equipment that some disabled persons need to work often perplexes non-disabled coworkers. Although the disabled person may not think twice about this equipment, non-disabled individuals may feel that they have to address this equipment in some way or help their disabled coworkers maneuver throughout the workplace. Neither of these situations is usually the case.
Although non-disabled individuals may have been taught that, to be polite, they must “help” a disabled person, most disabled people are very adept at getting around and managing their equipment. Never assume that someone in a wheelchair needs you to push him/her onto an elevator or that they need you to hold equipment as they get into their car. Always ask if a disabled person needs assistance. Never just assume that they do. Disabled people value their independence as much as non-disabled people. Robbing them of that independence in the name of being helpful or polite is not a help but an insult. A disabled person who needs assistance will be happy you asked, and one that doesn’t will value your respect.
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Another interaction issue to consider is how to maneuver around a disabled person’s equipment. Remember, their equipment – whether it is a wheelchair, canes or crutches, or even a guide dog – is like an extension of them. It’s no more appropriate for someone to grab or move equipment than it is for someone to grab the arm or hand of a coworker without being asked or without offering help. It is no more appropriate to lean on someone’s wheelchair than it would be to lean on a stranger in an elevator. Everyone has personal space, including disabled individuals.
Requests for Help
Many people are too busy to consider a request for assistance from a disabled coworker as anything more than a nuisance. But, those same people wouldn’t think twice about helping a coworker that dropped an armload of file folders or one who fell on an icy sidewalk. People with disabilities who need accommodations are not complaining and their requests for assistance should be responded to graciously; just as graciously as you would to someone who dropped something or someone who slipped on the ice. Everyone needs a bit of help at one time or another; some people just need help a bit more often.
It is so important to see past an individual’s disability. Disabled persons have as much to contribute in the workplace as non-disabled workers. We often make adjustments when interacting with non-disabled people without even thinking about it; we interact differently with everyone. There’s no need to feel uncomfortable or confused when dealing with a disabled coworker. It’s simply a matter of understanding what we have often been taught to ignore.
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