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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