When hiring people with disabilities it is good to know the “do’s” and “don’ts” of communication. Here is a simple introduction to understanding how to communicate with persons with the most common disabilities. We hope this information clears up misconceptions, encourages healthy relationships and promotes inclusion in your workplace.
It is always better to ask job applicants how they will perform a job function, rather than assume they cannot do something required for a job they are applying for. You may start with statements or questions such as: “Printing and scanning documents will be one of your job functions.” “How would you be handling that job duty?”
Some persons have spent a lifetime learning to adapt to their disabilities. If you do or say the wrong thing, don’t be embarrassed; be aware. Be patient with yourself and the individual.
As an employer, part of good etiquette is to make reasonable accommodation easy. So they can perform the essential functions of their job. If a disability is obvious, it is okay to ask what adjustments may be needed. We encourage you to focus on your employee’s strengths. Arrange opportunities to discuss schedules and duties with them and address specific situations accordingly.
- Treat the person like anyone else.
- If you want to help or have doubts, please ask him or her first.
- Know them for who they are first, not their limitations.
- When speaking to him or her, please keep a normal tone of voice, as you would with any other employee. On average, a blind person may hear much the same as the rest of your staff. Please talk to him or her directly, not to other coworkers about him or her.
- If the person needs help, he or she will ask for it.
- When moving about, if he or she temporarily needs more than verbal directions, let the person take your arm for guidance.
- If you ordinarily shake hands to greet staff, please feel free to say something like, “Here is my hand”.
- You can still use words like, “see” or “look”. These are common words that are used every day. People who are blind are not offended by these words.
- Praise him or her, not for his or her blindness skills, but for a job well done, as you would any other staff.
- Say the person’s name or lightly touch his or her hand or arm before speaking to them.
- Do not shout. Speak at a normal volume. You may need to move closer but don’t raise your voice.
- Speak at a normal rate, unless if you have a tendency to speak fast, then slow down a little.
- Do not over emphasize or exaggerate your speech.
- Do not say “never mind” or “forget it”.
- In an area that echoes, you may need to speak a little softer and perhaps move a little closer to the individual.
- When repeating, perhaps state the sentence in a different manner. For example, instead of “Do you want to go shopping?” You might say, “Want to go to the store?”
- If possible, turn background noise down or off.
- When in a group setting, try to only have one person speaking at a time.
- Specify when changing topics.
- Avoid saying only one word but rather say short sentences to help put the word in context.
- Talk directly to the person and not around them.
- Do not answer questions that are directed to the individual.
- Inform the person when you are moving away or leaving.
- When using phonetics, use words that are not similar to others. For example, “t” for tango and “p” for puppy.
- When stating numbers, use single digits. For example, five six rather than “fifty six”.
- Give directions such as left or right rather than “over here” or tapping on the table or chair. Distinguishing where sounds are coming from is often difficult.
- When something needs to be repeated, only one person needs to restate it. Multiple voices at the same time makes comprehension very problematic.
- Remember, everyone is different so these are tips to consider. You cannot go wrong with simply asking the individual when in doubt, “How can I help you hear me better?”
Deaf and Hard of Hearing
- Ask the person how he or she prefers to communicate.
- Avoid covering your mouth, chewing gum, or other things that can distort your mouth when speaking to a person with hearing loss.
- Do not turn your back when speaking to a person with hearing loss and make sure you have the person’s attention before speaking.
- Ask the person how to get his or her attention (tapping on shoulder, waving, flickering the light).
- Lip-reading is an acquired skill and only about 30% of what is said is visible on the lips. Do not expect the person to lip-read a conversation with complete accuracy.
- Do not shout at a person with hearing loss. Speaking louder doesn’t help and it exaggerates the lip movements making lip-reading more difficult.
- Include the person as much as possible in the workplace, including social events and work breaks. Telling a person with hearing loss “never mind” or “I’ll tell you later” alienates them and gives the impression that he or she is an unimportant member of the staff.
- Remember that the use of speech is a choice to individuals with a hearing loss. Respect their decision and remember that speech is not related to one’s intelligence.
- Remember that facial expressions and body language tell a great deal. Make sure your visual messages match what you are saying.
- Speak directly to the person with hearing loss. When using a sign language interpreter, avoid using phrases such as “tell him/tell her” but rather speak naturally as though the interpreter was not there.
- Most importantly relax and be patient.
Socially acceptable Little Person, LP, or Dwarf, Short Stature.
The offensive word is “midget” but not “little person”. Little person or “LP” are socially accepted words for people with Dwarfism. Dwarfism is the medical term that is an appropriate word when using in a medical conversation. People taller than 4’10 are considered “short” so they may get offended if you call them a “littler person”. There is no “normal” height person.
Here are some tips:
- It is helpful for the Bathroom sink, paper towel dispenser and soap to be placed lower in the restrooms.
- As any other disability, don’t touch them such as patting them on their head.
- It is not necessary to kneel down for “eye level”. They are comfortable looking up.
- Some accommodations in the workplace are stools, step stools, light poles, desk, office chairs adjustable, driving pedals, breakroom accessible objects such as microwaves.
- If their job requires travel, hotel accessible rooms are mainly to fit people for wheelchairs and is not accommodating to people with dwarfism. Some hotels have step stools that can be requested making reservations.
Most disabling conditions are not readily apparent. For example, you may never know that a coworker is struggling with chronic pain, depression, diabetes, anxiety, etc. unless that person discloses his or her condition. A person with an invisible disability may strive to maintain professionalism even when he or she may be experiencing pain or discomfort. He or she may avoid disclosing the disability and requesting accommodation for fear of being perceived negatively by an employer and coworkers.
It is important to remember that a person with an invisible disability is at a disadvantage that is balanced by his or her accommodations. These adjustments are a necessity, not a privilege, to enable the employee to fulfill the requirements of their job.
Learning Disabilities and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
Learning disabilities are lifelong disorders that interfere with a person’s ability to receive, express or process information. Although he or she has certain limitations, most people with learning disabilities have average or above-average intelligence. You may not realize that the person has a learning disability because he or she functions so well. You may be confused about why such a high-functioning person has problems in one aspect of his or her work.
Traumatic Brain Injuries and other acquired forms of cognitive impairment share similar traits with learning disabilities. A person with a learning disability or brain injury may have poor impulse control. He or she may make inappropriate comments and may not understand social cues or get indications that he or she has offended someone. In his or her frustration to understand, or to get his or her ideas across, he or she may seem pushy. All of these behaviors arise as a result of the injury.
Because with some learning disabilities spoken information gets scrambled as he or she listens, a person who has a learning disability such as auditory processing disorder, attention deficits or some forms of autism may need information demonstrated and/or in writing. Even very simple instructions may need to be written down. Ask the person how you can best relay information. A person with dyslexia or other reading disabilities may have trouble reading written information. Give him or her verbal explanations and/or allow extra time for reading.
Be direct in your communication. A person with a learning disability may have trouble grasping subtleties. Remain patient if the individual does not understand the direction given. Give one set of instructions in a clear, concise manner before giving a second set of instructions.
It may be easier for the person to function in a quiet environment without distractions, such as conflict, people moving around or high-pitched machinery. If possible, allowing ear plugs or white noise may make all the difference.
Bluntness may be part of the person’s natural way of communication. Respond positively, not defensively.
- Provide praise and positive reinforcement.
- Provide sensitivity training to coworkers.
- Allow the employee to take a break as a part of a stress management plan.
- Do not require this employee to work overtime.
- A wheelchair user is a person, not equipment. The wheelchair is an extension of his or her personal space.
- Do offer a handshake in greeting.
- Do hold the door open for a wheelchair user.
- Respect the person’s space by not asking a wheelchair user to hold coats.
- Don’t lean over someone in a wheelchair to shake another person’s hand
- Don’t push or touch a person’s wheelchair without permission.
- Be aware of wheelchair user’s reach limits. Place as many items as possible within his or her grasp.
- Make sure that there is a clear path of travel to shelves and display racks.
- When talking to a wheelchair user, grab your chair and sit at his or her level. If that’s not possible, stand at a slight distance, so that he or she isn’t straining the neck to make eye contact with you.
- If the service counter at your place of business is too high for a wheelchair user to see over, step around it to provide service. Have a clipboard handy if filling in forms or providing signatures are expected.
- If your building has different routes through it, be sure that signs direct wheelchair users to the most accessible ways around the facility.
- Employer’s Assistance Guide: Interviewing Individuals with Disabilities (Courtesy of Orange County Addictions & Disabilities Resources Manual)
- Disability Etiquette Slideshow: Everything You Wanted to Know, But Are Afraid to Ask (Courtesy of America’s Job Exchange)
- Accommodation Ideas: Adult ADHD, Learning Disabilities, and a Searchable Database (Courtesy of the Job Accommodation Network)
- National Association for the Deaf (NAD) National Employment Resource Center (NERC)
- Western Mass Employment Collaborative
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
- U.S. Department of Labor
- Job Accommodation Network
- American Federation for the Blind