People with disabilities can be an asset in your workplace, bringing skills and a history of perseverance to their job duties. However, some employees might be uncomfortable around a person with disabilities, unsure how to address her or afraid of saying the wrong thing. Learning proper disability etiquette can ease your fears and those of your co-workers.
When you interview people with disabilities, it's important to remember that they are, first, people. You wouldn't be interviewing the person if she didn't have the right skills and qualifications for the job, so there's no need to worry or to plan to treat her differently. It's acceptable to ask about necessary accommodations when scheduling the interview. For example, let a person with vision impairment know you'll meet her at the door to escort her to the interview room. If there's a specific route a person in a wheelchair needs to follow to reach the elevator, give her good directions. If she has a hearing impairment and brings a sign language translator, always address the candidate directly with questions, not the translator. If the candidate has a disability that requires her to use public transportation or have a driver bring her to the interview, let her know about what time you plan to end the interview so she can schedule her pick up or route home.
When you work alongside a person with a disability, it's best to treat them with the same consideration you would other employees. Ask before you offer assistance to help the person maintain her independence. For a vision-impaired person, for example, don't grab her arm to lead her to a meeting -- you would never invade another employee's personal space that way. Instead, ask if you can accompany her to the meeting and tell her she can hold your elbow if she'd like to walk with you. When you see a person in a wheelchair struggling to hold packages and move her wheelchair, ask if you can carry the packages for her instead of stepping behind her and pushing the wheelchair. Proper etiquette dictates you give them the option of completing the tasks themselves rather than assuming they cannot.
Addressing a Disability
When you work with a person with a disability, you shouldn't define that person by her disability. Although it's not proper etiquette to discuss the disability in most cases, you might need to describe her disability occasionally, such as when you're planning off-site meetings and want to make sure the proper accommodations are made. Instead of saying you have a blind person on staff, describe her as a person with a visual impairment or who is blind. Don't say you have a wheelchair-bound co-worker; instead, say you have a co-worker who uses a wheelchair.
Some disabilities aren't immediately recognizable. A person who is deaf, for example, won't usually have any visible aid devices, nor will someone who suffers from severe asthma. Be patient with people with hidden disabilities and make accommodations when you can, such as allowing a person with severe asthma to park close to the building so she doesn't have to walk far and making sure a person who is deaf can sit close to an electrical outlet so she can use voice-recognition equipment during meetings, if necessary. Don't make a big deal out of the accommodations, such as snapping at other attendees to change to seats away from an electrical outlet; instead, respectfully ask them to move or stand behind the seat yourself until the person who is deaf arrives.
Based outside Atlanta, Ga., Shala Munroe has been writing and copy editing since 1995. Beginning her career at newspapers such as the "Marietta Daily Journal" and the "Atlanta Business Chronicle," she most recently worked in communications and management for several nonprofit organizations before purchasing a flower shop in 2006. She earned a BA in communications from Jacksonville State University.