to address harassment, bullying and discrimination

 with Stephen Hammond

Tip #25 — DIFFERENCES AND DISCOMFORT - persons with disabilities

It can be uncomfortable for some people to interact with people who have physical or mental disabilities. We don't know how to act. Don't believe that? Talk to a person who uses a wheelchair; anyone can tell you of bizarre behaviours they've observed from others. One of the most common is when they are chatting with a person  and a third person joins the conversation. If the third person is not using a wheelchair, often the dialogue will only be carried between the two people not using a wheelchair, sometimes even referring to the person in the wheelchair as if he or she isn't there.


For four years, I was on the board of directors of the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. I wanted to do community service work, and I thought this was a perfect fit because my dad has been hard of hearing since birth. But even after four years of talking and debating with deaf people, I still feel a level of uncertainty when I'm alone with a deaf person and have no translator. Strangely, I always feel the deaf person is responsible for putting me at ease. If he or she doesn't, I don't seem to know what to do. I learned so much during those four years and yet one great lesson came from understanding why deaf people want to continue to communicate in their own language instead of trying to fit into the hearing world. When deaf people communicate with one another, they experience much more comfort.


If I learned anything in those four years, it's that levels of comfort run both ways. Many deaf people prefer spending time with one another versus trying to fit into the hearing world.


I discovered a training exercise from an organization in the United States called Windmill. They specialize in programs for persons with disabilities and getting better understanding from persons without disabilities. In the exercise people are asked, "If you were to have a disability or disorder, which of the following would you choose?"




Being a paraplegic (paralysis of legs)

Having a learning disability


Most people choose deafness because they perceive that it will hinder their life the least. Then I ask them what type of person they'd hire, if they were to integrate more persons with disabilities into their workforce. Very few choose to work with a deaf person. Most opt for the person who is paraplegic. Why? Because we prefer to interact with a hearing person to avoid communication problems.  Email has helped this quite a bit, but our discomfort is still there.


Why are we so hung up on having only comfortable communication? I don't know, but when Helen Keller was asked which was more difficult, being deaf or being blind, she replied:



Employers need to ensure that merely feeling uncomfortable isn't an excuse for inadvertently cutting people off from otherwise stellar workers. At the least, it may encourage a valuable employee to leave your employ and seek another.



1) Learn a few bits of etiquette about communications involving persons with disabilities - there are a number of things people do, yet don't realize it. A bit of knowledge (easily found on the web) can help. For example, talk to a deaf person, not the interpreter. Similarly, talk to a person using a wheelchair, not any companion with the person. Don't finish the sentence of a person with a speech impediment. Simple things can make a big difference.


2) Ask before assisting - there are many times we want to assist a person with a disability. There are many times a person with a disability wants and needs assistance. Unless we're talking about something that is urgent or safety-threatening, it's very easy to ask if the person wants some help.


3) Be only as inquisitive as the person wants - and don't expect any more. Sometimes a curious person wants to know more about a disability or how it occurred. One person may be open to this and another person may not. Accept whatever the person wants as it's no one's business, unless of course it's related to the business for operational purposes (although origins of a disability can't possibly be needed for operational purposes).


This is TIP #25 of 52 WEEKLY TIPS for managers and supervisors. 
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