By hiring qualified applicants with disabilities, you have already demonstrated a sense of fairness and integrity that is crucial to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace. Now your responsibility becomes ensuring your disabled employees are comfortable and well-equipped to be productive team members.
For the most part, interactions with disabled employees will be no different than those with non-disabled workers; disability does not mean high maintenance. However, certain tendencies can unintentionally strike an insensitive tone.
Here are four ways you can avoid unconscious insensitivity:
Use visual cues to respectfully communicate with employees who are deaf or hard of hearing.
- Maintain eye contact with your employee, not the interpreter.
- Feel free to repeat or rephrase, but don’t exaggerate your mouth movements or gestures.
Do not deviate from your normal speech pattern when interacting with a disabled employee.
- Non-disabled individuals might raise their volume when conversing with a disabled person. This is condescending and ineffective. Not to mention, it is distracting to others around you.
- Similarly, non-disabled individuals might adopt a different tone and speak more slowly when interacting with a disabled person. While likely unintentional, this is also condescending and inappropriate for communicating with employees who have sensory, mobility, or intellectual disabilities.
As a general rule, don’t say things to disabled employees that you wouldn’t say to your non-disabled colleagues.
- As tempting as it might be to break the ice with a joke, chances are it won’t be amusing or original. There’s no need to ask an employee in a wheelchair whether she has a license to drive that thing.
- Disabled individuals do not need to be told how brave or inspiring they are. While the sentiment may be genuine, it can make the person feel uncomfortable or isolated, which is the opposite of an inclusive work environment. Recognition of a job well done is always appreciated, but going beyond that is unnecessary.
- Never use a sentence like, “Let me do that for you.” Most disabled workers are experienced self-advocates and will ask for help when they need it. You can offer assistance in a respectful manner, but do not assume your employee is helpless. After all, their independence and problem-solving acumen were likely factors in their hiring to begin with.
Take simple, proactive measures to ensure a disability-friendly workplace.
- Keep the office clean and free of obstacles that could impede mobility.
- Warn disabled employees about potential hazards like rearranged furniture, wet floors, upcoming construction projects, etc.
- Ensure training materials and work-related documents can be accessed in multiple formats. I.e., all print materials should also be available electronically.
- Establish an employee resource group to encourage regular discussion of inclusive, disability-friendly solutions in the workplace.
Clear and respectful communication is vital to the success of any organization. By following these common-sense approaches, you will cultivate honest, productive relationships with your disabled employees.