Disability in the Workplace: 4 Ways to Increase Awareness

Posted on Wed, Nov 13, 2013 @ 10:11 AM

disability in the workplaceWhen we talk about disability in the workplace, most of us probably think of architecture: Do we have functioning wheel chair lifts, enough handicap spaces? Are the hallway telephones low enough so that someone in a wheel chair can reach them?

Physical accommodation is certainly an important part of the conversation, but as author, attorney and diversity specialist Melissa Marshall suggests, “Disability has at least as much to do with the attitudes and behaviors of the organization and its employees as it does with the person who has the disability.”

Before we continue, we do want to stress that disability education can—and should—come from an expert, someone who can present dynamic material in a way that moves beyond simple facts about the Americans with Disabilities Act. With that said, we also believe that disability education can come from anyone who is self-aware, passionate and committed to diversity in the workplace.

To help increase your organization’s awareness and sensitivity towards people with disabilities, we’d like to share four tips from Marshall’s book, Getting It: Persuading Organizations and Individuals to be More Comfortable with People with Disabilities.

Disability in the Workplace: 4 Simple Ways to Increase Awareness and Sensitivity

Assess the environment
If you are someone without a disability, you’ll have to accept the fact that you can never truly experience the world in the same way as someone with a disability. Even so, it never hurts to try to look at your organization through the eyes of someone with a disability. Here are a couple of questions Marshall suggests organizations consider:

  • Do we have employees with disabilities?
  • Do we actively seek out employees with disabilities?
  • Do we serve customers with disabilities?
  • If someone with a disability were to look our organization’s catalogue, advertising or other print materials would they see anyone else with a disability? If not, why?
  • Would a TTY number be included in this material?

As we said above, amenities are important, but just as important are affirmations—subtle, but important things like images of people with disabilities in company advertisements—of an organization’s commitment to be inclusive.  

Assess your organization’s problem-solving skills
People who don’t know how to solve a problem get scared. And when they get scared, they often act inappropriately. Let’s illustrate the point with one of Marshall’s examples:

There was once a telephone receptionist. One day she received a phone call from someone with a speech impediment. Because the receptionist could not understand this person, she hung up on him. The person called back and was hung up on again. This repeated until the caller finally gave up. So why did this happen? Fear, of course. The receptionist did not know how to handle the situation, became scared, and shut down.

While we cannot expect every staff member to solve every disability-related problem, it is, as Marshall suggests, “reasonable to expect that every staff member knows how to direct someone with a problem to a designated person who can.” Marshall suggests assigning a staff member to problem solve disability issues. This will reduce panic and ensure that the person with a disability is properly assisted.

Have people in the organization learn Disability 101
Folks with a rudimentary understanding of ADA mandates are, unfortunately, under the false impression that people with disabilities are coddled and receive special treatment. Teaching employees the legalities—and making them aware of what most people with disabilities want in terms of treatment—will help diffuse these myths.  

Treat people with disabilities like anyone else—all the time
“See the person rather than the disability” is a cliché, but if your organization is committed to a diverse workplace, you must get to a point where you treat people with disabilities exactly like you treat everyone else. This means that, when necessary, you must be willing and comfortable with disciplining and firing people with disabilities.

Employees with disabilities may require special accommodations, but they do not require—nor do they want—special treatment. This includes being hired, promoted and retained when they are not qualified for the position.


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