When it comes to hiring persons with disabilities (PWDs), sometimes all you need is a little creativity. There are many ways that disabilities can affect a person’s ability to perform effectively on the job. Levels of disability and ability are unique to an individual. Most accommodations are simple, creative alternatives for traditional ways of doing things but how prepared are you to embrace inclusivity at work?
1) Learn about the cultural norms, customs, and pressures of people with different kinds of disabilities
There are scores of specific types of disabilities, and several broad categories. While you do not have to know all the medical and social details of each one, it is a good idea to have a basic understanding of the differences between diverse disability experiences. For example:
Visible vs. invisible disabilities
It often results in very different kinds and degrees of stigma; all of which call for different degrees of disclosure and limits.
Lifelong vs. later in life disabilities
It can affect the amount of social integration a person has had, the quality of their education, and their overall comfort and experience with their own disabilities.
Physical, sensory, intellectual, learning, and mental health disabilities, as well as chronic pain and chronic illness
These different disabilities call for different types of accessibility and accommodation. Being aware of their differences is the first step to providing better support.
2) Do not make disability jokes, even if a PWD says its fine
Tolerating or encouraging disability-themed jokes in the workplace is always a bad idea even though they may seem harmless. With time and repetition, they could create an increasingly hostile and dispiriting environment for disabled workers, even if they do not take offense right away as they are often under a lot of social pressure to ‘go along’ and be ‘cool with’ jokes at their expense.
3) Learn to be familiar with their behaviours and communication styles that may be related to disabilities
Both visibly obvious and invisible disabilities can sometimes affect how we come across to others. For instance:
People with mobility impairments, and who use wheelchairs or crutches, are often seen as ‘too slow’ and ‘in the way’.
People with sensory or cognitive disabilities sometimes communicate differently in ways that others interpret as difficult to understand, inattentive, long-winded or noncommittal, humourless, or rude.
Disabilities often distort expected body language, for example, handshakes, eye contact, and displaying weird sitting and standing positions in social situations.
Before dismissing a disabled employee as awkward, rude, or ‘not fitting in’, managers and co-workers should consider how a person’s disability may be affecting their interactions with others, and give them suitable job roles based on a variety of skills and professional attributes, with examples of successful people with disabilities (autism spectrum, blind or low vision, deaf or hard of hearing, intellectual disabilities, mental health conditions, and physical disabilities) found here.
4) Advocate for all company events, be it formal and informal, are accessible
Obviously, it is a must to include disabled employees to participate fully in social events. It is always a good idea to avoid venues with stairs, no accessible restrooms, long walks to get there, lack of resting places, or sign language interpretation. It is similar to you considering food allergies and employees who may not be able to drink alcohol. Additionally, you should announce in advance, so the disabled workers may make arrangements in order for them to participate. For example, at a seminar, I found it tedious to lip-read the people surrounding me talking simultaneously.
5) Provide accommodations quietly but, as often as possible, not secretly
Do not make a spectacle of the accommodations and special arrangements you make for disabled employees and be showy to help them visibly. Try not to discuss accommodations in front of other employees but on the other hand, do not treat accommodations like a deep dark secret.
As often as possible, work with disabled employees to keep their co-workers appropriately ‘in the loop’ about accommodations as it will discourage speculation, gossip and resentment over why one employee is getting ‘special treatment’.
6) Allow PWDs to control the terms of their own confidentiality and/or disclosure with other staff.
Different disabilities call for different levels of confidentiality and disclosure. Frankly speaking, mental health and intellectual disabilities carry more stigma than physical and sensory disabilities. Also, invisible disabilities tend to create misunderstandings even if an open discussion is conducted – potentially it could be helpful, but it may cause more harm. The key is to discuss the pros and cons of talking openly about an employee’s disability and workplace accommodations, but ultimately leaving decisions about disclosure to each individual.
7) Don’t overlook the possibility that a PWD might also be insensitive about PWDs.
PWDs can be ableist too. This refers to them using words that treat people unfairly due to their disability. In fact, PWDs in difficult social situations sometimes feel enormous pressure to side with their ‘normal’ co-workers in targeting other PWDs in order to fit in. There is also a fairly common school of thought within parts of the disability community that disabled people who want to be accepted and ‘get ahead’ should be easy-going and not complain about petty jokes and ableism. Encouraging everyone to examine and change their ableist habits can do a lot to make all disabled employees feel safe and accepted.
8) Teach employees appropriate ways to express concern and offer help to disabled employees.
One common practice that can go wrong in dealing with PWDs is that they overthink whether and how to express concern and offer help. Follow this simple formula: Simply ask if you want to ask the disabled co-worker if she/he is ok and offer them help. Just make sure you accept their answer, no matter what it is. Do not push, insist and get annoyed if they say no to your offer.
Finally, PWDs deserve to be treated with fairness and dignity. PWDs with comparable training and experience have equal potential for workplace success. In addition, some disabled people come ready to work on day one, requiring little or no accommodation, whether practical or social.
Disabilities are real. Being qualified and hardworking does not mean disabled people are the same as other workers. Many disabled workers require both technical and social adjustments in order to succeed. Denying these differences in a misguided attempt to make disability unimportant, does not work.
Ableist social habits can create a barrier in the workplace as stairs and narrow doorways. Paying attention to these habits can be the difference between mere non-discrimination and actually giving disabled people both the physical and emotional space to excel and bring maximum value to the organisations they work for.
Today, I am still struggling in my career as a Hard-of-Hearing employee and I believe that more accommodations can be done in my workplace. Hopefully, my wish will come true one day when a kind employer takes me in with all the above considerations. Special thanks to Jia Yi from Make The Change for this article.