I’m a Person First: When an Employee Has a Disability

I'm a Person First: When an Employee Has a DisabilityIn the last century, the workplace has grown to include all kinds of people in all kinds of jobs. We now see men and women in traditionally masculine or feminine fields–female construction workers or male elementary teachers, for example. African-American, Latino, and Native-American workers abound in all fields, as do Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist employees. Human Resource Management offices have thus tried to make all workplaces more welcoming for any new employee, no matter his or her status or background.

Yet, what if the employee has a disability? Unfortunately, many businesses are still shying away from hiring workers with disabilities. They fear that hiring a person with a disability will not be cost-effective, or that the modifications requested will not be reasonable. However, persons with disabilities, like everyone else, have the right to work in a chosen job. To be a good employer to persons with disabilities, keep these things in mind:

1. Use person-first language. Jane is not “your crippled employee”–she’s “your employee with cerebral palsy.” Monica is not “our Down Syndrome receptionist”–she’s Monica, the receptionist. Employees who are referred to first by their names, as people, are likely to feel secure and appreciated, and stay at their jobs.

2. Talk to the person, not an outside agency. This is especially true if your prospective employee is using Vocational Rehab or another service. Daniel may be blind, or Gil may have a speech disorder, but they can speak on their own behalf. These employees want to be treated as equals. This also means avoiding talking down to them or giving them only menial tasks when it’s clear they can do more. (Even if an employee can only perform menial tasks, he or she should be interacted with as a capable adult).

3. Be careful in what context you bring up the disability. For example, if you are a teacher and a colleague uses a wheelchair, do not say, “I’m not sure you can handle the physical demands of this job, Sarah.” Sarah would be within her rights to accuse you of discrimination. If you wouldn’t say it to a black person, a Jew, or a lesbian, don’t say it to a person with a disability. If your employee looks like they need help, just ask, “Can I help, Andrew?” and go from there.

4. Do not assume employees with disabilities are behind mistakes or negative outcomes. Encourage workers to get to know each other in terms of strengths, not weaknesses.

Not long ago, people with disabilities were considered drains on the workforce, or unable and unwilling to work. Your workplace can be one that shows just the opposite–that such people are great assets to everyone.

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