As we close out the month of October, there’s been no shortage of topics to focus on in the workplace. But October has also been National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). So, for many in the workplace, this month has been all about raising consciousness and improving conditions for American workers with disabilities — and speaking out about disability etiquette.
Frankly, this is something we should all focus more on — year-round.
Given that we’ve been operating since March within the context of a pandemic, it’s even more important to understand the challenges employees with disabilities face. Also important: What leaders and managers can do to help overcome those challenges.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers provide job applicants and employees with disabilities “reasonable accommodations” that enable them to enjoy equal employment opportunities. But accommodation is not just about access — it’s also about empathy and consideration. This is especially true since disabilities may include a whole range of impairments that aren’t immediately obvious. In fact, in many situations we may not realize the extent of existing conditions. So, it is wise to not make assumptions or place individuals in stereotype buckets.
Here are some pointers for improving disability etiquette in your workplace — remote, blended, or on-site:
It’s important not to assume the extent of mobility based on the use or lack of assistive devices, such as walking assistants or wheelchairs. After all, it’s highly possible a mobility-impaired employee may not use them. They still may need accommodations, however; for instance, they may be unable to walk long distances or stand for long periods of time.
To accommodate these needs: If you’re a remote workplace, schedule video meetings with extra time for people to get situated. If onsite, provide accessible parking and ADA-compliant accessibility. Two other simple ways to help: Clearing pathways and making sure most everything is reachable from a wheelchair. Also, ask what is in the way and what can’t be reached, then act on the answers. Particularly during social distancing, but also in general, don’t touch canes or reach out to “help” move a wheelchair or other assistive device without permission. And certainly don’t push a wheelchair or move a cane or walker to the side to “get it out of the way.”
Disability etiquette bonus: When in a conversation with someone in a wheelchair, kneel or sit down so you’re at eye level when talking.
In the physical workplace, post braille signage on the walls and doors and ensure any signage and posters are available in an alternate forms. Keep corridors and pathways clear of obstructions and make the routes of travel clear and straightforward. And make sure all new vision-impaired employees are given a detailed tour of the workplace.
Any workplace, remote or not, should provide assistive technology for in-place systems and technologies as well as any kind of new training or communication methods. Examples include scanners or magnifiers, digital recorders and dictation devices, screen reading software, refreshable braille displays, and braille embossers. Of course, depending on the individual’s preference, distributed written materials should be available in braille, large print or audio. Again, ask then act. And it should go without saying, but service animals and must be allowed in any office.
Disability etiquette bonus: Don’t pet guide dogs without permission.
There’s an incredible range of assistive technologies for the deaf and hard of hearing. Employers must ensure their workplaces accommodate them, and the people who use them. For an employee with a hearing issue, even something as seemingly straightforward as a video meeting can become an epic frustration. So consider an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter as well as CART (communication access real-time translation). Real-time captioning is also an option.
Accommodation, for some, may be as simple as making sure those in the meeting are situated in the best possible position to read lips. Speakers can also help in this area; encourage them not to turn away and to not put their hands in front of their mouths.
Disability etiquette bonus: Please, when talking to the hearing impaired, don’t shout to be heard. And, unless asked, resist temptation to repeat yourself.
Imagine being in a Zoom meeting and dealing with aphasia or a stutter. I was recently in a video conference where an employee was clearly struggling. At times, she needed more time to carefully articulate her points. Unfortunately, the climate of the virtual room was anything but patient.
You can help in these situations by facilitating an accommodating environment. Deliberately give each contributor room to think, and time to breathe. And if you’re not clear on what someone just said, don’t gloss over it: you may be missing a critical point. Instead, ask them to repeat it, and give them the time to do so. And please be patient enough to allow them to complete their own sentences.
Disability etiquette bonus: For some, it may simply be easier to communicate in writing — a Slack channel, for instance. Provide that opportunity before each meeting, then make sure everyone has access.
Disability Etiquette for Other Impairments
There are other impairments to consider: Respiratory impairments and chemical sensitivities (which traditional office cleaning products can wreak havoc on), for example. Cognitive and psychological impairments are becoming more prevalent; each carries its own burden and challenge for the individual.
No matter the type or severity of the impairment, it’s up to the employer to provide access and opportunity. Most important, each employer and leader must provide the previously mentioned reasonable accommodation. They must also provide understanding, education, and awareness among those in your workforce. To that end, consider including issues of access and interactions in your next employee engagement survey.
For employees with disabilities, October is only one month out of a lifetime. We’ve come so far this year, and this is one more way we can evolve. A truly inclusive workplace that accommodates and welcomes everyone leads to far greater productivity. Data also shows inclusivity boosts employee morale and brings teams together in ways that supercharge creativity and innovation.
Welcoming everyone, regardless of apparent and not-so-obvious impairments, is good for everyone. And that’s good for business.