Things ‘to’ Say to People With Disabilities

You may know that it's inappropriate to ask your colleague with a disability "How did you get that way?" But how do you communicate with someone who has a disability without causing offense? Here are a few suggestions.

If you’ve read our 7 Things Never to Say to People With Disabilities article, then you’re well aware that there are a host of verbal landmines that could befall otherwise well-intentioned employees intending to interact with colleagues who have disabilities. Potential gaffes run the gamut from “How did you get that way” to “You look so good–are you really disabled?” to “How do you go to the bathroom?”

While some of these questions are born of cultural ignorance, others are simply clumsily-worded attempts to get to know someone with a disability better. But while offense isn’t intended, often it’s the end result.

Things ‘to’ Say to People With Disabilities to Promote Diversity & Inclusion

The key to interacting with a colleague who has a disability, says Nancy Starnes, vice president and chief of staff, National Organization on Disability, is to interact with the person, not the disability, particularly if you’re meeting the colleague for the first time.

“When it’s a new employee, people have to tread lightly,” says Starnes. “Give them time to learn something about their coworkers while they’re learning about you. And hopefully the very first thing you’re not going to care about is the disability. Ask them how they’re finding their new job here. Or ‘do you want any suggestions for the local restaurants where we go to lunch?’ The mantra we put out there is that it’s people first … not the disability.”

Sounds simple enough. Yet many “able-bodied” colleagues still seem to make blunders. In DiversityInc’s Things Not to Say series, we’ve given plenty of examples of insensitive comments to avoid. Now we are turning the tables and offering advice on some things to be mindful of when talking to coworkers from traditionally underrepresented groups.Here are a few ways to better communicate or ask questions to people with disabilities without offense.

1. “You may not need help, but please don’t hesitate to ask me if you do.”

The offer of help is often loaded because it presumes that the person is in need of assistance and is unable to deal with a given task or objective on his own, says Starnes, who has been in a wheelchair since being injured in a plane crash. So in most cases it’s better to wait until assistance is requested.

“I think the challenge becomes avoiding making the offer sound pejorative, because you can’t presume what anyone’s level of ability is,” says Starnes.

Alan Muir, executive director of Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities, says someone’s attempt to “help” him without asking first once nearly caused a major mishap.

“One time I was boarding a jet with my bag and doing just fine making my way up the tarmac to get into the plane,” says Muir, who stands 3 feet tall. “The engines were roaring; you couldn’t hear anything. A tarmac person … came up and grabbed me from underneath my arms and attempted to lift me up to the next step with my bag. I nearly fell backwards on top of her.”

Muir says he screamed at the attendant not to touch him, since his weight might knock them both off balance and send them tumbling down onto the tarmac. “That was unreasonable, rude and unnecessary,” he says. “But in her mind she was trying to help. When you’re invading personal space without any kind of permission, that is a definite no-no.”

In that situation, Starnes says a little communication would have gone a long way.

“The best thing to do is say, ‘You may not need any help, but please don’t hesitate to ask me if you do.’ But don’t assume the help is needed,” she says. “There are people that use wheelchairs that actually walk for short distances that wouldn’t need your help in every instance.”

2. “What is the term that you prefer?”

Black or African American? Gay or homosexual? Handicapped or a person with a disability? Labeling someone because of a preconceived notion is also a stumbling block that some otherwise well-meaning employees run into.

“When I talk to you about disability as a person with a disability, what’s the term that you prefer?” says Starnes. “Some people prefer to be called people with abilities, some have no problems with the term disability, handicapable or some term like that. But asking helps give that person the option to lead the knowledge. It says to the person with the disability … ‘You are going to teach me–I’m not presuming that I know.’ And it shows that you respect them as an individual and are not lumping them into a class.”

3. “Can I ask about your disability?”

Let’s say you’ve bonded with a coworker with a disability. You’ve chatted, gone out to lunch a few times and even developed a genuine rapport over griping about the boss. You’ve really hit it off when curiosity overcomes your judgment and you blurt out, “So how did you get this way?” How many seconds will tick off the clock before you realize what a gaffe that was?

If you feel you’ve reached a point where such a question can be asked without offense, there’s a very respectful way to do it, says Karen Putz. “Ask permission.”

Putz, who has been deaf since the age of 19 as the result of a rare family gene, says asking in a simple, respectful way will often illicit a genuine response. “I’m generally an open book about being deaf,” she said. “So for me it wouldn’t be offensive if someone said, ‘May I ask you some questions about being deaf or hard of hearing?'”

Indeed, if presented the right way, Putz says she’s more than open to sharing stories about the deaf community, seeing it as an opportunity to teach those that may want a better understanding. “The deaf and hard-of-hearing community is quite diverse, with many different communication modes used and various levels of hearing loss. If one approaches those questions with an air of respect and genuineness, the subject is more likely to be discussed without a heated debate.”

At the end of the day, you should treat a coworker with a disability as you would any other colleague in the office, says Starnes–with simple dignity and respect.

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  • Danielle Gauthier

    Like Mr. Alain Muir, I have had numerous situations where people have given me ‘so-called help’ without asking for permission. Strangers have often times grabbed by crutches while pulling me towards them with their arm around my waiste, thinking this will help me get up the staircase. In fact, it disaligns my back, hips, legs, ligaments (that attach the legs to the hips) and especially my sciatic nerves, which leaves me without any strength in my right leg. This causes my right hip and knee to buckle, which can send me falling down the staircase. So, it is very important to understand that you can put our lives in danger by imposing help which was never requested and is simply not necessary. Furthermore, it is important to allow the handicapped person to walk and to go up the stairs at his/her own pace. Never force a handicapped person on crutches to walk or go up the stairs at your non-handicapped pace. It is impossible for us to do so. Please allow us to move at our own pace so as to remain safe.

    • Luke Visconti

      I so agree with you. In my case, it may take what seems like a long time for me to do something and it might look like it’s difficult (and it might be difficult), but I like doing it myself. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Danielle Gauthier

    This reminds me of another dangerous situation that a former colleague put me through. I was but a few feet in front of a door leading to a corridor. I see this colleague about to cut me off, so I said to her: “Don’t open the door. If you do, you will hit my crutches and will send them flying.”

    Totally disregarding what I said, she cut me off and swung the door open, slamming it against both crutches, sending them flying while leaving me stranded where I could not reach them. She just just took off without so much as an apology. Add insult to injury, the corridor was so wide, I could not reach a wall to prop myself against so as to remain standing. By some chance, a boss was also there and he immediately fetched my crutches for me which prevented me from falling to the floor.

    So to all non-handicapped people out there, please do not cut off a handicapped person standing in front of a door and slam that door on their equipment. This equipment is necessary for them to remain upright and safe. Please let the handicapped person open the door in a safe manner, even if it means taking 5 to 10 extra seconds. This can prevent a serious situation for that handicapped person. If you are tempted to swing that door open in front of a handicapped person using crutches or a wheelchair, ask yourself if you would slam the door in the face of a service dog! So please think before you act.

    • Luke Visconti

      I can’t imagine what goes through some people’s heads. Although I can walk without a cane (and it’s better without one because I only have one working hand), I often take one when I know I’ll be in crowds because people behave themselves better. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

  • Danielle Gauthier

    I think it has a lot to do with the French Quebec mindset. The French in my province have been taught that if you are handicapped, regardless of what handicap you suffer from, you are now considered completely disabled and should just stay home and wait for death to claim you. They perceive you as an inferior, one who can do nothing on your own. Thus, they automatically react as if they were your legal guardians and believe that they have every right to do so. They refuse you the right to be autonomous, to think for yourself and to make decisions on your own. But I’ve discovered that their prejudices go even deeper than that. Because they believe you to be inferiour due to a handicap, they become jealous of your successes and achievements to the point where they view them as a psychological slap in the face. How dare a handicapped person be able to do all of those things when they are convinced that they, as non-handicapped people, are incapable of succeeding at these same things. To them, it’s as if we are trying to upstage them and make them look like the inferior ones while trying to look and act superior to them. That is how ridiculous the situation is in Quebec. Moreover, they not understand what crutches are used for, and they don’t want to learn. That’s why I was yanked around numerous times in the metro staircases. They believe they have to grab me by the waiste to pull me up the stairs because they have no idea what crutches are used for. If you try and teach them, they run away before you’ve finished your first sentence. If you tell them you want to keep your autonomy, they get all insulted and give you a dirty look. In Quebec, autonomy is a dirty word when uttered by a handicapped person. We are not perceived as human beings, we are perceived as UFOs, something that they need to investigate by pulling them apart, piece by piece to see how they work. That’s why we are constantly bombarded by the most ridiculous questions everywhere we go. Non-handicapped people do not realize how ignorant they sound and act. They become so uncomfortable in our company that they literally lose their minds. One young cashier at Target in Longueuil, who used the AUTOMATED doors to come to work and go back home each and every day, became so uncomfortable at the sight of my crutches that she yelled “Let me open the door for you!!” as she ran towards the automated door, leaving her cash register unattended. Thank God, she had closed it, otherwise anyone could have reached in and taken the money. The doors were automated by a movement detector, but she became so flustered by the sight of my crutches that she took leave of her senses. This is the kind of stupidity I have to deal with on a daily basis. Quite frankly, I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.

    • Juli Alexander

      In Panama, I had people push me over, had my cane kicked out simply to see me fall, take my cane away so they could half carry me (neuropathy hurts, so they are inflicting PAIN)… and worse. In the USA I was threatened with arrest in Grants Pass, OR on false charges (being symptomatic and therefore subject to arrest) threatened with disturbing the peace, even though I was the victim. Abusive buttheads are everywhere.

  • Danielle Gauthier

    2. “What is the term that you prefer?”

    I much prefer handicapped to that of disabled. Why? In my mind, handicapped means even if a part of me isn’t working 100%, I can find ways of coping that allow me to pull off whatever it is I must do, just in a different way.

    To the non-handicapped person, disabled means that you are incapable of doing anything and that you should stay home and wait for death to claim you. I kid you not. That is how the population at large thinks in my neck of the woods. Contrary to them, I choose to think and act positively rather than adopting their defeatist attitude.

    So for me, it’s handicapped. Let me put it this way. If a golfer can still enjoy playing golf regardless of his handicap, then I too can enjoy my life regardless of my handicap.

    So let the games continue, because I’m not done yet! FORE!!!

  • Wow. I can’t imagine. I am not handicapped but I do have very good friends who are, and I have never seen them that way. I love & appreciate them & they are all talented, with some skills, abilities, & good attitudes that make me want to be more like them! They are awesome people!

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