How Workers with Disabilities Can Gain Coworker Support

How Workers with Disabilities Can Gain Coworker Support

As director of human resources for the Center for Disability Rights, Mary Willoughby is surrounded by coworkers with disabilities. Yet despite the ease with which she saw her colleagues of all physical abilities interacting, she at first felt uncomfortable.

“I had questions like, ‘Do I push someone’s wheelchair or not? How much help should I give someone with a visual impairment, and how do I talk to them if they can’t see me?’ Like everyone, I want to create a warm environment for my colleagues. I just didn’t know how.”

Willoughby has since learned the importance of hearing directly from people with disabilities regarding workplace etiquette. That’s a good lesson, but one that’s even harder to learn for men and women who have not had Willoughby’s opportunity to work alongside a number of workers with disabilities. Because most people never get that chance, it often falls to workers with disabilities themselves to initiate conversations as to what they need and want, how they’d like to be treated, and what is unneeded, unwanted or downright unacceptable.

Initiate Discussions Yourself

“If you’ve got a disability, you have to be forthright and matter-of-fact, and talk about it,” says Willoughby. “That way, able-bodied people can understand your disability, and not over or underreact.”

Willoughby advises that you assume your coworkers want to do the right thing, but because they feel awkward or shy, they may not know how. “It’s up to the person who knows -- the one with the disability -- to initiate the discussion,” she says.

For example, Willoughby once shared office space with a man in a wheelchair. He explained at the outset that his poor circulation made him fidgety. He invited Willoughby to move her desk so her back was to him -- adding he would not be offended at all.

“People are not mind readers,” notes Thomas J. Schmokel, an Americans with Disabilities Act>  consultant. “If you want some kind of help, you have to be specific. It’s smart business. If you need help and you don’t ask for it, your productivity will suffer.”

Support Goes Both Ways

Schmokel adds that gaining the support of workers, and helping them feel comfortable, is a two-way street. “If you ask someone to help out with a portion of your job, do something else to help them -- whether you’re asked to or not. If you put one burden on someone, be sure to take another burden off.”

A good place to find workplace support is in training sessions. If workers with disabilities speak about their needs in an open forum and ask for and receive input, uncomfortable feelings and awkwardness can be avoided down the line. Human resources departments can help orient all new employees about workers with disabilities.

Workplace attitudes may be especially awkward for someone who spent years as an able-bodied person but has suddenly become disabled. He may not know what to say or how to act, and coworkers may feel just as uncertain.

“It’s all about communication,” Willoughby stresses. “When you return to work, let your coworkers know the current state of your injury or illness. Emphasize that you can do your job just like before, but that you may need certain assistance. People want to help. If you give them a specific list of dos and don’ts, they’ll be eager to comply.”

Willoughby’s list of recommendations includes:

  • Do ask for reasonable accommodations (for example, bathroom access and a nearby parking spot).

  • Do discuss your disability in specific terms, using language that’s easily understood.

  • Do tell colleagues what you want (for instance, how to be approached, how and when to provide wheelchair assistance, what areas you can handle yourself, etc.).

“Be specific!” Willoughby urges. “The more you normalize your condition, the more quickly it becomes part of the normal workplace routine for everyone.”