HR’s Guide to Interacting with Employees of All Abilities

Feb 15, 2019

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“It’s a matter of becoming more aware of the people you’re with,” Felicia Nursmen of the National Organization on Disability said during a webinar.

AUTHOR Katie Clarey | PUBLISHED Feb. 13, 2019

Humans tend to form perceptions about people with disabilities based on their interactions with others who have disabilities, according to Felicia Nursmen, managing director of employer services at the National Organization on Disability. While experience can sometimes lend wisdom later on, it can also feed unconscious biases, Nursmen told attendees listening to a webinar she hosted Tuesday afternoon. Once those biases are in place, they may complicate relationships between people with and without disabilities, specifically in a professional context.

For the 96% of attendees who said they know someone who has a disability, this means they may have a little work to do in identifying their prejudices and correcting any misinformation. Most of the workforce in the U.S. will be in need of this, too, if that statistic holds up among the general population. To deal with these biases, it’s best to take a three-pronged approach, Nursmen recommended. “Recognize your own bias. Focus on people. And increase your exposure to bias,” she said. “What’s most important is that we ask the right questions and that we’re having the right conversations.”

Nursmen proposed anyone interacting with colleagues with disabilities take up an attitude of learning. “Don’t stop interacting with people because you’ve made a mistake or because you fear you’re going to make a mistake,” she said. “Learn from it.” From there, professionals can adhere to a couple key rules, add respectful language to their vocabularies and, finally, familiarize themselves with the best ways to interact with people according to the kind of disability they have.

The golden rules

There is one guideline everyone can follow when interacting with a person with a disability, regardless of what kind of disability the person may have: “Always ask before you assist and take the answer,” Nursmen said. “You do need to follow their lead and follow their wishes.” Nursmen said she was walking once with a colleague who had a mobility impairment and he tripped and fell. He said no when she asked if she could help him up, and for good reason — he knew how to get up without hurting himself, something she would have done had she grabbed his arm and tried to tug him up.

People shouldn’t assume they know how to help someone with a disability. They shouldn’t assume they understand someone’s disability, either, Nursmen cautioned attendees. “Never make assumptions,” she said. “It’s never appropriate in the workforce to ask if someone has a disability. It really isn’t our business in the workforce, in the workplace, what is happening with someone personally.”

In terms of compliance, this suggestion takes on more nuance. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an employer generally cannot ask someone whether they have a disability or inquire about the nature or severity of a disability. An employer can ask, however, if a person can perform the duties of a job with or without an accommodation and ask him or her to describe or how he or she would do the job.

Watch your language

When talking about about a person with a disability, it’s important not to define them by their disability. “What we tend to focus on now, and this really has been in the last five or 10 years, is using person-first language, which means the person comes before the disability in the description,” Nursmen said. Instead of calling someone a disabled person, say that he or she is a person with a disability.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. In general, people on the autism spectrum prefer identity-first language, according to Nursmen. This is true for people in the Deaf community as well. “We have a very strong and very proud Deaf culture in our country,” Nursmen said. “It is just important to be aware of that and be respectful.”

Nursmen allowed that there are some who will disagree with these guidelines. “We don’t want people to get caught up in the language of it,” she said. What’s more important is to know what not to say. “I don’t know of anyone who has ever had a positive experience being called retarded or a retard. We do not use that language any longer. It really is not acceptable.”

She noted a few more words and phrases to avoid. People have physical disabilities — they’re not “handicapped.” “This one can potentially be one of the most difficult because we still see the handicapped placard and handicapped signs,” she said. In the same vein, people are not “wheelchair-bound” — people use wheelchairs or are wheelchair users. Lastly, people have psychiatric disabilities, not mental illnesses, according to Nursmen.

Learning how to best interact with people with specific disabilities

Many people have difficulty interacting with someone with a disability because of fear, Nursmen said. Knowledge will allow people to overcome that fear. “It’s a matter of becoming more aware of the people you’re with,” Nursmen said. That said, people need to understand how to behave around people who have an array of disabilities. Here are Nursmen’s best tips to interacting with people who are deaf, who are blind, who have mobility impairments, speech impairments and cognitive disabilities or different learning styles.

  • When getting the attention of someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, tap the person on the shoulder, look them in the eye and speak clearly. Keep your hands away from your mouth as you talk. If the person is working with an interpreter, be sure to speak to the person and not the interpreter. If you’re having trouble communicating with someone and no interpreter is available, you can ask to use your phone as a temporary solution.
  • When approaching a person who is blind or visually impaired, make sure to speak as you approach. “Say your name, speaking in a normal tone,” Nursmen said. “If the person has a service dog, allow the dog to do its job.” When walking with that person, you can ask if he or she would like to take your arm. From there, that person will take the lead — follow as directed and give verbal alerts as to obstacles coming your way.
  • When working with someone who has a mobility impairment, make sure to think about accessibility when planning work outings, conference attendances and any other activities. And, Nursmen noted, if a colleague uses a wheelchair, never push it before asking or being asked to do so.
  • When interacting with someone who has a speech impairment, prioritize your own understanding. It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s respectful to the person speaking. “If you do not understand that person, make sure that you ask them to repeat themselves,” Nursmen said. This request communicates to the person that you value what he or she has to say.
  • When collaborating with someone who has a cognitive disability, have patience and be prepared to repeat information you may have already given out. “When completing forms or doing projects or working together on things, be patient, flexible and supportive,” Nursmen said. Try to think of different ways you can communicate, Nursmen suggested. Some people with cognitive disabilities will have no problem completing a task once given instructions depicted by pictures rather than written down on a piece of paper.

Bring NOD’s best-in-class Disability Etiquette and Awareness Training to your workplace. Just contact our Professional Services team at services@nod.org

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