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Interacting with Employees with Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. If your business hires an employee with a disability, you need to accommodate that employee. The National Organization on Disability (NOD) is a great place to start if you want to find out more about disability issues.

A good place to start treating those with disabilities with respect is the language you use:

  • Avoid using words such as handicapped, crippled, and invalid to refer to those with disabilities.

  • Avoid using words such as healthy and normal to refer to those without disabilities. Many people with disabilities are in excellent health.

  • Don’t refer to someone as wheelchair-bound or confined to a wheelchair. The chair, in fact, affords independence and mobility, not restriction.

  • Use people-first terminology. A general rule is to acknowledge the disability but always place the person first.

  • Talk to everyone in a medium tone of voice. Don’t talk too loudly to anyone with a disability.

  • Avoid getting overly concerned about figures of speech in the presence of people with disabilities.

If you work with someone who has a disability, you might thinnk that he should be treated differently from other coworkers. For the most part, this thinking is mistaken. People are people first and disabled or nondisabled second. Treating all people as people first always puts you on good footing.

If you're interviewing or employing a person with a disability, certain rules of etiquette can help you interact with that person appropriately:

  • Train your employees to anticipate and accommodate those with disabilities. Everyone should know where accessible parking, elevators, restrooms, and drinking fountains are in your building and should be prepared to give clear instructions to those with visual impairments.

  • Educate yourself about the assistance technologies people with disabilities are using. If you know what assistive technologies your employees use, you can adapt presentations and communications to accommodate them .

  • Offer to shake hands when you meet someone with a disability for the first time. If shaking hands isn’t possible, a nod of the head is fine.

  • Avoid staring at someone with a disability or averting your gaze. Staring and averting your gaze are equally hurtful to a person with a disability. If someone stares at you, it makes you wonder what's so strange about you. Averting your gaze can be even worse making you feel so hideous that people can't stand to look at you. The rule is simple: Look everyone in the eye.

  • Assume that a disabled person is no less able to care for himself than you are. “Helping” someone who has a disability is discouraged unless the person has given you permission to do so. If you’re asked to help, ask for specific instructions, and follow them carefully.

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