One in four U.S. adults has a disability, whether they’ve disclosed it at work or not. And while employers and colleagues of people with disabilities may be eager to show respect, sometimes they aren’t sure of the right workplace etiquette.
“People may have questions in their head about a disability but they don’t know how to frame those questions. They get so caught up in that concern that it colors their interactions,” says disability inclusion expert Deb Russell.
No two disabilities are the same, and every person with a disability has their own preferences. But there are some general disability inclusion guidelines you can keep in mind.
Disability etiquette tip #1: Focus on the person, not the disability
Treat people with disabilities as you would anyone else. Avoid making assumptions about what any person can or can’t do.
Phil Kosak is president of Carolina Fine Snacks, a company based in Greenville, North Carolina. Over 60 percent of his workforce are people with disabilities. When he’s doing an interview, Kosak focuses on the person — not their disability.
“I dial in on their skill sets. ‘What have you done? What do you like to do?’” he says. “I always ask the question, ‘What would be the perfect job for you?’”
Disability etiquette tip #2: Address the person with disabilities directly, and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification
If a candidate with a disability comes to an interview with a support person, such as a job coach or sign language interpreter, make sure you address the candidate directly.
“Your conversation is with the individual with a disability,” says Russell. “You want to make eye contact with the individual that you’re communicating with.”
And it’s OK to ask for clarification if you need it. “The wrong thing to do is to assume that you understood them when you know you didn’t, and just pretend and nod your head,” says Russell.
Disability etiquette tip #3: Be mindful of the language you use
Use person-first language when talking about a person with a disability. That means avoiding negative or victimizing language, such as “suffers from” or “is afflicted with.”
Say “person with a disability,” not “disabled person”
Say “person with Down syndrome” rather than “a Down syndrome person”
Say “person who uses a wheelchair” instead of “wheelchair-bound person”
Disability etiquette tip #4: Respect personal preferences
The exception to the rule above? When someone with a disability asks you to use specific language. In that case, you should defer to their personal preference.
“You can start with the building blocks [of disability etiquette] that are universal, but that doesn’t mean that the person with the disability themselves is going to follow those rules,” says Russell.
For example, there are best practices for interacting with a service animal. That includes asking before approaching the dog, and refraining from petting or feeding it.
“And then the exception is if the person who’s actually the handler of the service animal is feeding the dog at the table and volunteers, ‘Oh yeah, you can feed the dog at the table,’” says Russell. “All of a sudden the rule goes out the window.”
Disability etiquette tip #5: Ask before you help
Don’t assume that just because someone has a disability, they need assistance.
If someone with a disability seems like they could use help, it’s OK to offer it and then wait for a response. But make sure you have the go-ahead before you act.
Russell gives the example of a colleague and friend who has cerebral palsy. When they’re out to lunch together and order cans of soda, Russell will ask the friend first if she can help open her can: “She always says yes, but I’m not ever going to go over and grab that can [without asking].”
Disability etiquette tip #6: Be mindful of people’s personal space
Mobility devices, such as a wheelchair or cane, are personal space for people with disabilities.
“If somebody uses a wheelchair, you don’t lean on it and you don’t ask them to carry stuff in their lap,” says Russell. “If somebody uses a cane and they’ve set it down, you don’t move it.”
Another example: When walking with a person who’s blind or has low vision, you can offer your arm or elbow. But don’t take their arm or touch their body or assistive device unless they ask you to.
Disability etiquette tip #7: Relax — and don’t be afraid to make mistakes
Employers shouldn’t let the fear of making a mistake cause them to limit opportunities for people with disabilities.
Russell gives the example of a company that wanted to recruit students with disabilities for their internship program. “They have an employee take the potential intern to lunch,” she says. “The fear was, ‘What if that person with a disability uses a wheelchair and the employee that’s taking them to lunch doesn’t know how to manage that with their car?’”
In this case, when extending the lunch invitation, the recruiter could ask whether the candidate needs any accommodations. In fact, it’s good practice to do this for every candidate, because many people have invisible disabilities.
Workplace etiquette is an important tool for disability inclusion
At its core, disability etiquette is about respect and communication. By questioning your own assumptions, treating people as individuals, and keeping the lines of communication open, you’ll be on the way to building a strong culture of workplace disability etiquette.