Some of us have gone through our lives with little or no contact with people with disabilities. The appearance of a person with a disability in your office may prove unsettling. Questions like, “How will this person communicate?” “How can I test and evaluate this person?” “How can this person perform the requirements of the job?” are normal. Hopefully, within these pages you will find some answers or assurances that will make your interactions positive and not negative.

The biggest barriers that people with disabilities face, and the hardest barriers to remove, are other people’s negative attitudes and erroneous images of them. Some common pitfall reactions to people with disabilities are:

  • All that matters is your label. Individuals adopt a label, usually based upon a person’s disability. There is little regard for the individuality of the person, i.e. the blind have all the same needs; all quadriplegics have the same interests and abilities; people with any kind of physical impairment are “the handicapped” or “the crippled” and all become “cases.”
  • I feel sorry for you. In this syndrome of pity, focus is inordinately on the negative aspects of the person’s life: a life filled with pain, suffering, difficulty, frustration, fear, and rejection. Although you may be aware of these negative feelings and try not to show them, they often emerge through the tone of voice or in the expression on your face.
  • Do not worry, I’ll save you. Characteristics of this pitfall are expressions such as the following: “I’ll do it for you,” “Give the person a break,” “Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it,” “It’s too difficult for you.”
  • I know what’s best for you. This syndrome is characterized by such expressions, as “You shouldn’t” “You’ll never…” “You can’t…” or “Unrealistic dreamer.”
  • Who’s more anxious, you or I? Characteristic comments about the person are typically communicated to colleagues, family members and friends. These include “Makes me feel uncomfortable,” “It’s so frustrating,” “I can’t deal with…” and “…inadequate.”

People with disabilities are just people who may happen to have more difficulty than others walking, moving, talking, learning, breathing, seeing, hearing, etc. They are remarkably like everybody else. They pass; they fail; they succeed; they go bankrupt; they take trips; they stay at home; they are bright people; they are good people; they are pains in the neck; they are trying to get by. To free yourself from the limitations of the reactions above, keep in mind these general suggestions:

Be generous with yourself. Admit that the uneasiness you feel is your problem (not the person’s), and realize that it will pass with time and exposure.

Don’t be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. By avoiding communication or contact with a person with a disability, fears and misconceptions cannot be curbed. Discomfort can and will be eased if people with disabilities and people without disabilities see and interact with each other more often in work and social settings.

Talk directly to the person with a disability. Comments to attendants or friends such as, “does he want to…” should be avoided.  When a deaf person is using a sign language interpreter, look at the person and direct all questions and comments to the person.

Use common sense and a positive, respectful attitude. When you are not sure of yourself, ask the person with the disability the appropriate behavior. Keep in mind though that each person may have different preferences.  What is appropriate for one person may not be appropriate for another person, even if they have the same type of disability.

Expect the person with a disability to meet the same standards of performance as all employees. They are here because of their abilities, not their disabilities.

Do not apply blanket accommodations. Needs vary much among individuals, even those with the same type of disability.  Therefore, all accommodations are not automatically applicable to all persons with a particular disability. A disability can vary in terms of the degree of limitation, the length of time the person has been disabled (adjustment to the disability), and the stability of the condition.

Do not discuss a person’s disability or related needs with anyone who does not have a legitimate need to know. A person’s disability and any work-related functional limitations caused by that disability should be held in the strictest confidence.

Do not feel that people with disabilities are getting unfair advantages. Accommodations help to ‘even the field’ so that a person may be effective in their work. People with disabilities do not get by with less work. Often, they must work harder than their non-disabled co-workers.

Pretending to understand someone’s speech when you do not will hinder communication, not enhance it.  Some people with disabilities may have difficulty in expressing ideas orally. Wait for the person to finish their thought, rather than interrupting or finishing it for them. If you do not understand what is being said, repeat back what you do not understand, and the other person will fill in or correct your understanding where needed. It is appropriate to ask the person if it may be easier for them to write down the information; however, you must be prepared to accept the answer ‘no.’ 

Recognize that a person with a disability may afford you a unique opportunity. What is not always readily appreciated is the unique input of a person whose life experiences may be different from the norm. If we view this situation as a learning experience rather than a problem, we can all be enriched by it.