WORKING WITH PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES
People with disabilities are often perceived as different from those of us who are not. When we are in the company of a disabled person, at college or at work, the first thing we need to adjust is our own attitude. That person is more like us than different. Remember that people with disabilities at work have the same motivation to succeed as you do. Yet they face more challenges than you do. So respect them for their strengths before you judge them for their “differences”.
Here are a few guiding suggestions that will help you to help your disabled colleagues feel more inclusive.
- Never assume that a person with a physical disability also has an intellectual disability.
- Don’t feel, or exhibit, pity. Interact positively. Bear in mind that your disabled colleague probably has a full and rewarding life at work and at home.
- Be careful to avoid using collective terms for disabled people such as “the blind”. Rather say “people who are blind”. Also, avoid descriptors which are emotionally loaded such as “bedridden” “confined to a wheelchair”. Your colleague uses a wheelchair and isn’t “confined”.
- Avoid substitute descriptors like “physically challenged” or “differently-abled”. All they do is reinforce our fear of dealing with disabled people in a straight-forward way.
- Engage with your disabled colleague directly. Make eye contact. Remember, they have the same likes and dislikes as the rest of your workmates. They don’t all play wheelchair basketball. Not all blind people are musical. Talk about the same things you do with anyone else; politics, sport, food, weather, your day so far.
- Make sure your disabled colleague/employee is given job performance feedback and knows if he or she is not performing to expectations. They have the same right to honest evaluation as everyone else. If the impact of their disability on their work is not clear to you, ask. Find out what adjustments should be made to improve their efficiency or comfort.
- Always ask before offering assistance.
- Ask permission before touching a person’s wheelchair or mobility aid.
Common categories of disabilities
- VISION IMPAIRMENT Vision impairment refers to people who are blind or who have partial sight.
- DEAF OR HEARING IMPAIRED Hearing impairments can range from mild to profound. People who are hard of hearing may use a range of strategies and equipment including lip-reading, writing notes, hearing aids or sign language interpreters.
- MENTAL HEALTH CONDITIONS Mental illness is a general term for a group of illnesses that affect the mind or brain. These illnesses, which include bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety and personality disorders, affect the way a person thinks, feels and acts.
- AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS Autism is an umbrella description which includes autistic disorders, Asperger’s syndrome and atypical autism. Autism affects the way information is taken in and stored in the brain. People with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions and other activities.
- PHYSICAL DISABILITIES The common characteristic in physical disability is that some aspect of a person’s physical functioning, usually either their mobility, dexterity, or stamina, is affected. People with physical disabilities are usually experts regarding their own needs, and will understand the impact of their disability on their environment or on their performance.
- PROGRESSIVE CHRONIC CONDITIONS A progressive disorder is a disease or health condition that gets worse over time, resulting in a general decline in health or function. The term progressive disorder is often used to distinguish a condition from a relapsing and recurring disorder. In a relapsing and recurring disorder there are often periods of relief, when the disease is stable for a while or is in remission. In contrast, a progressive disorder does not have these breaks. Depending on the diagnosis, a progressive disorder may move quickly or very slowly.
- INTELLECTUAL DISABILITIES A person with an intellectual disability may have significant limitations in the skills needed to live and work in the community, including difficulties with communication, self-care, social skills, safety and self-direction.
- ACQUIRED BRAIN INJURIES Acquired brain injury refers to any type of brain damage that occurs after birth. The injury may occur because of infection, disease, lack of oxygen or trauma to the head.
The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has developed a quick reference resource guide to equip employers with the knowledge and tools to make South Africa’s workplaces more accessible, more inclusive and more productive for people with disabilities.