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Increasing Comfort: Working with People with Disabilities

Employers or colleagues may feel intimidated by the AODA’s mandate to accommodate if they have no experience working with people with disabilities. To help employers and colleagues become more comfortable with accommodation in the workplace, we have outlined some guidelines for working with people with disabilities.

Working with People with Disabilities

Employers and colleagues may need to provide accommodations for different work situations, including:

  • Job interviews
  • Workstation set-up
  • Emergency response

People needing accommodations include individuals who have:

  • Visual impairments
  • Hearing impairments
  • Physical or mobility disabilities
  • Learning disabilities
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Mental health challenges

Communication and Language

Several resources may direct you not to ask about a person’s disability. However, if you are working with people with disabilities, you may be worried about offending a co-worker, or unsure how to interact with them. Sometimes, simply asking for information can help you develop a better understanding. People with disabilities are often comfortable telling others about their communication needs. Keep in mind that individuals will have personal preferences about if, when, or how often they might like to discuss their disability, if at all.

Each person will also have a preference for the language used to refer to their disability. Disabilities can vary in degree: for instance, someone with vision loss might be blind, visually impaired, or partially sighted. The term they use may have to do with the degree of vision they have. But it may also be a question of identification: a person with some vision may still refer to themselves as blind or may prefer another term.

If a person with a disability is accompanied by someone, such as a colleague or support person, speak directly to the person with the disability. Do not use the accompanying person to be a go-between. While accompanying people sometimes help a disabled person communicate, other people converse without such help.

If you think a disabled person might need help, ask that person instead of taking it for granted that help is required. However, if someone does need help, they will most likely explain what kind of help they need and how to assist.

Assistive Devices and Service Animals

Many people have assistive devices to help them perform everyday tasks, such as walking or communicating, that people without disabilities perform using parts of their bodies, for instance, their legs, ears, or eyes. There are a number of devices people use, for example:

  • Wheelchairs
  • Crutches
  • Walkers
  • Support canes (for stability)
  • White canes (for orientation)
  • Hearing aids
  • Augmentative or alternative communication devices
  • Communication boards

Other people may have service animals, which help with the same or other tasks, including:

  • Guiding someone with a visual impairment around obstacles
  • Warning someone with Diabetes about low blood sugar
  • Keeping someone with epilepsy safe during seizures
  • Calming someone with autism in an environment with too much sensory stimulation and preventing behavioural outbursts
  • Retrieving out-of-reach objects for someone with a physical disability

Alerting someone with a hearing disability to certain sounds, such as ringing phones or fire alarms

Finally, you should not touch an assistive device or a service animal without its owner’s permission.

Invisible Disabilities

When a person uses an assistive device or a service animal, it is easy to recognize that that person has a disability. There are, however, many disabilities that are less visible, such as:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Arthritis
  • Brain Injury
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Chronic Pain
  • Epilepsy
  • Gastrointestinal Disease
  • Ischemic Heart Disease
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Memory Disorders
  • Mental Illness (such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.)
  • Multiple Sclerosis

Although people with invisible disabilities may look non-disabled, their conditions affect how or whether they perform certain tasks. For instance, heart conditions can prevent people from walking long distances. People with brain injuries may have short-term memory loss. People with learning disabilities may be verbally articulate but have difficulty with written information. Often, people struggle with disclosing their invisible disabilities due to stigmatization or discrimination. People fear that disclosure will mean they will not receive job offers, or that they will be treated differently from colleagues because of false beliefs about their disabilities. However, people who choose to disclose have the opportunity to request accommodations that may help them succeed in job tasks. Employers can help by creating a work environment where people feel comfortable disclosing their disabilities.

Working Together

Whether a person’s disability is visible or invisible, that disability is only one part of that person. People with disabilities have a range of skills, accomplishments, likes, dislikes, and life experiences. Colleagues can get to know workers with disabilities and find out that they have much in common. Strike up a conversation!