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Disability Etiquette - Working with Colleagues and Clients Who Have Disabilities


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In the workplace there are advantages and disadvantages to disclosing a disability. Learn how to work with colleagues and clients who have a disability. A third of people surveyed said they avoid people with disabilities for fear of saying the wrong thing; as a result, many people hide their disabilities to avoid awkwardness.

End the awkwardness by exploring common issues surrounding disability, including disability types, people-first language, permanent/temporary/situational disabilities, invisible disabilities, Social Model vs. Medical Model, curb-cut effect, Spoon Theory of chronic illness, whether to disclose a disability, etc.

People with disabilities are us; we will all experience some form of disability in our lives.

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Disability Etiquette - Working with Colleagues and Clients Who Have Disabilities

  1. 1. Disability Etiquette John McNabb Working with Colleagues and Clients Who Have Disabilities
  2. 2. About this talk This talk is a collection of notes, ideas, and anecdotes about people with disabilities. Some of the ideas may contradict each other, because they represent various points of view.
  3. 3. Who are PwDs? PwDs (People with Disabilities) are us. PwDs are the largest minority group, and make up a cross- section of society. Odds are we will all experience a disability during our lifetime, at least one that is temporary or age-related.
  4. 4. We’ll all experience a disability at some point Microsoft’s “Persona Spectrum” infographic illustrates that each of the various disabilities (touch, see, hear, speak) can be experienced in a way that is permanent, temporary, or situational.
  5. 5. Disability Definition A disability is a mismatch between a person’s abilities and their environment. Human traits + environment = disability This is often misunderstood by the general public.
  6. 6. People-first language Disability literature often promotes people-first language, which: • recommends you say “a person with a disability”, not “a disabled person” • is based on the idea that someone is a unique person, and is not defined by their disability
  7. 7. People-first language There are also arguments against people-first language, for example: • Some feel it’s too formal - and can make language awkward, discouraging open discussion. So it might be better to just refer to someone as a “blind person” or “deaf person”.
  8. 8. Identity-first language Unlike people-first language, identity-first language describes a person as “disabled”. Some people prefer this because it emphasizes that they are disabled by a society that does not accommodate them.
  9. 9. Social Model vs. Medical Model Lisa Egan, a wheelchair user, promotes the Social Model of Disability. She says she is disabled by a society that places social, attitudinal and architectural barriers in her way. “Most people look at the word ‘disabled’ and assume it means ‘less able.’ It doesn’t. It means ‘prevented from functioning.’” – Lisa Egan
  10. 10. Social Model vs. Medical Model The Medical Model of Disability is the idea that a person is prevented from functioning in society by their body or brain, so society is not responsible for any barriers they might experience.
  11. 11. Social Model The Social Model of Disability is the idea that people are disabled by barriers in society, so the onus is on society to remove those barriers, to form a more inclusive society. That also includes more opportunities for employment.
  12. 12. Medical Model The Medical Model of Disability is the idea that people who don’t have “normal” bodies can’t be part of mainstream society, and may not be able to work jobs without accommodations, so they should be compensated with special welfare benefits and services.
  13. 13. Invisible disabilities Invisible disabilities are disabilities which may not be obvious to others. They can be met with a general lack of empathy, which can lead to arguments over things like parking spaces.
  14. 14. Invisible disabilities Amber Gillett was born with brittle bone disease and can’t walk long distances. She has an accessible parking permit on her car, and sometimes she is treated quite rudely by strangers who think she’s faking. Lesson: You can’t always tell if a person has a disability just by looking at them.
  15. 15. Curb Cut Effect A curb cut is a wedge cut into a sidewalk curb to allow wheels to roll up onto the sidewalk. The “Curb Cut Effect” refers to the idea that making things accessible helps everyone. Many tools or practices originally developed to help PwDs have been found to be useful for everyone.
  16. 16. Curb Cut Effect Although curb cuts were originally designed to assist wheelchair users, people today find them useful for strollers, carts, or just carrying groceries. This is the “curb cut effect” – the idea that universal design elements are helpful to everyone, not just PWDs. As a result, curb cuts are no longer considered an assistive technology.
  17. 17. Examples of Curb Cut Effect Examples of the curb cut effect include: • Typewriter - built by Pellegrino Turri in 1808 for his blind lover Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano
  18. 18. Examples of Curb Cut Effect Examples of the curb cut effect include: • Audiobooks - originally made for blind readers, now a time-saving convenience for all
  19. 19. Examples of Curb Cut Effect Examples of the curb cut effect include: • Closed Captions on TV - originally for deaf or hard of hearing viewers, now convenient for watching TV at a low volume, and for watching shows with strong accents or slang
  20. 20. Examples of Curb Cut Effect Examples of the curb cut effect include: • Electric toothbrush – originally designed for people with limited motor skills or braces
  21. 21. Examples of Curb Cut Effect Examples of the curb cut effect include: • Kitchen utensils with large handles - originally designed for people with arthritis or limited hand functions, now preferred by mainstream customers for comfort
  22. 22. International Disability Stats More than a billion people are estimated to live with some form of disability. That is about 15% of the world’s population. This figure is increasing through population growth, medical advances and the ageing process. (United Nations, 2011)
  23. 23. International Disability Stats In countries with life expectancies over 70 years, individuals spend on average about 8 years, or 11.5 per cent of their life span, living with disabilities. (Disabled World, 2018)
  24. 24. Attitudes toward PwDs Scope, a disability charity in England researched attitudes toward PwDs. Of people surveyed: • 43% do not personally know anyone who is disabled. • 33% said that getting to know someone disabled would make them feel more confident when meeting a disabled person. • 34% avoid disabled people, for fear of saying the wrong thing. • 66% said that they would worry about speaking about disability in front of a disabled person, fearing they would say something inappropriate.
  25. 25. Hiding a disability Of PwDs surveyed, 38% said they hide their disability to avoid poor attitudes or awkwardness.
  26. 26. End the Awkward When relating to PwDs, Scope offers advice on how to End the Awkward in the form of a mnemonic - H.I.D.E: • H: Say “Hi” • I: Introduce yourself • D: Don’t panic • E: End the Awkward
  27. 27. End the Awkward “You can’t End the Awkward if you’re not even having a conversation with someone. And think of all the great work colleagues, mates and possible dates you’re missing out on!” – Scope, a disability charity in England
  28. 28. Curiosity Stranger in a bar: “Are you a Thalidomide baby?” Courtney Gilmour: “Nope, I was just born like this!” Courtney Gilmour, an amputee comedian, was in a bar when a man began chatting with her. After a short introduction, he asked her if she was a Thalidomide baby, and asked to watch her drink from her glass.
  29. 29. Curiosity In an online article, Courtney said that we should normalize unconventional bodies, and be less fixated on how they got that way.
  30. 30. PwDs are Normal Don’t use the word ‘normal’ to describe a person without a disability - it makes PwDs sound abnormal by comparison. PwDs are normal - PwDs are us, and it is normal for a section of the population to have disabilities.
  31. 31. PwDs are Normal Here are some better ways to refer to people without disabilities… • Someone who is not blind is a sighted person. • Someone who is not deaf is a hearing person. • Someone who does not have a disability is non-disabled. • Someone who is not autistic is neurotypical.
  32. 32. Phrases to avoid • Don’t say “wheelchair-bound” - say “wheelchair user” - a wheelchair doesn’t restrict a person, it enables them. • Don’t say a person “suffers from blindness” - you don’t know their experience, they may not be suffering.
  33. 33. Ableism & Ableist Language Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. Ableist language has been normalized to such an extent, most people using ableist language do so without being aware of the implication behind their words.
  34. 34. Ableism & Ableist Language Examples of ableist language: • “That joke was so lame!” • “What are you, blind?” • “That’s just crazy talk.” • “Can you please dumb it down?” • “It’s like the blind leading the blind.”
  35. 35. Spoon Theory Spoon theory is a disability metaphor created by Christine Miserandino, who has Lupus. According to the theory, a person with a chronic illness has a finite number of spoons, which represent units of energy. These spoons must be rationed to avoid running out before the end of the day. Each activity costs one spoon.
  36. 36. Spoon Theory In Miserandino’s example, she starts the day with 12 spoons. She begins using her spoons on the following activities: 1. Not having slept well the night before 2. Have breakfast 3. Take a shower 4. Get dressed 5. Put on a sweater or shirt with long sleeves if necessary 6. Feel bad for taking 2 hours to get ready
  37. 37. Spoon Theory Now she is ready to leave for work, and she has already used 6 of her 12 spoons. It is possible to exceed one’s daily limit, but that means borrowing from the future and may result in not having enough spoons the next day. She explains that she has to pace herself every day, which can be frustrating. Others don’t understand what she goes through.
  38. 38. Amputees Kyle Maynard, born without full arms or legs, was the first quadruple amputee to ascend Mount Kilimanjaro without the aid of prosthetics.
  39. 39. Amputees Perhaps surprisingly, the term “amputee” can refer to someone who: • has had a limb (or part of one) removed with surgery • was born with a congenital amputation - this could be: – missing a portion of a limb or the entire limb, caused by a blood clot or other condition OR – missing a mid-portion of a limb – primarily caused by the drug thalidomide or from genetic inheritance
  40. 40. Amputees Don’t assume that: • anyone with short limbs was a thalidomide baby - because thalidomide hasn’t been prescribed to pregnant women since 1961. So anyone born after 1961 likely inherited the condition genetically. • an amputee has a cognitive disability. Some people treat amputees as though they have a mental deficiency, which is just insulting.
  41. 41. Equality vs. Equity In the above cartoon, three guys of varying heights are trying to watch a ballgame over a fence. • In the “Equality” panel, they all have identical boxes to stand on, but it’s not enough for the short guy to see over the fence. • In the “Equity” panel, the tallest guy has given his box to the short guy (who now has two), so now all three of them can see over the fence.
  42. 42. Equality vs. Equity Therefore: equality is treating everyone the same, but equity is giving each person what they need to succeed – in the form of an accommodation.
  43. 43. Unique Abilities In this cartoon, an official-looking gentleman faces a lineup of various animals – including a bird, monkey, penguin, elephant, fish, seal, and dog.
  44. 44. Unique Abilities He says “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree”. This illustrates that we all have unique abilities, and can contribute in different ways.
  45. 45. Don’t call PwDs inspirational Dr. Frances Ryan says, “It’s time to stop calling disabled people inspirational.” The idea that disability equals inspiration reinforces two worrying perceptions: 1. A disability is automatically a terrible tragedy that has to be overcome. 2. That whatever struggle or success disabled people experience, it’s simply a means to make non-disabled people feel good, i.e. inspiration porn.
  46. 46. Tips on working with PwDs 1. If a person appears to need help, ask them if they want help, and ask how you can help. 2. When entering a room where a blind person is, announce yourself - say hello, and mention your name. 3. When speaking with a deaf person who has an ASL interpreter, speak directly to the deaf person, in a normal tone. Do not turn away or cover your face while speaking.
  47. 47. Tips on working with PwDs 4. Don’t touch a person’s wheelchair or other equipment, because those things are an extension of that person. 5. Don’t touch a person’s service animal without first asking if it is okay to do so. 6. Don’t edit your speech - it’s ok to ask a blind person if they saw the debate on TV, or to say you’ll see them later.
  48. 48. Tips on working with PwDs 7. Don’t pat a person on the head - this can appear condescending. In this photo, Australian PM Kevin Rudd pats a wheelchair user on the head, during the launch of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
  49. 49. Tips on working with PwDs 8. Don’t kneel down to talk to a person in a wheelchair - this can also appear condescending. One wheelchair user said, “Don’t kneel down. You’ll hurt your back, and you look stupid.”
  50. 50. Customers with Disabilities - What to Say • Don’t get tripped up trying to say the right words • Express to the customer that you want to help • Ask the customer for information on how he or she is struggling • Assure the customer that you can solve the issue together • Speak to a customer with a disability as you would normally speak to anyone
  51. 51. Customers with Disabilities - What Not to Say • Do not interrupt or finish sentences; wait until the customer finishes talking • After giving customer instructions, wait until they’re ready before providing additional steps • Anything accusatory (“You clicked the wrong button”) • Avoid using the word just (“Just send an email to us”) • Do not speak more loudly or use a tone that sounds patronizing • Do not apologize (for their disability)
  52. 52. Customers with Disabilities - What You Can Say • You may say “blind” or “deaf” when speaking with people who have these disabilities – Follow the lead of the person you’re speaking with – Some people may object regardless • Speak as you would normally, using everyday phrases – “What do you see on the screen?” – “Click the button”
  53. 53. Whether to Disclose - Advantages When a person is applying for a job, or has already been hired, they may choose to disclose their disability to their employer. There are possible advantages, including: • Human Resources can provide workplace accommodations. • Accommodation laws (like the ADA) can help only if a candidate/employee speaks out. • An employer may earn financial incentives (like subsidies and tax breaks) for hiring PwDs.
  54. 54. Whether to Disclose - Disadvantages There are also possible disadvantages, including: • Possibility that co-workers might find out (although HR officers know it’s confidential). • Concerns about being given less responsibility, and not trusted to take on important projects. • Employer may believe common myths, and confuse learning and attention issues with intellectual disabilities.
  55. 55. Whether to Disclose - Recommendations Keep in mind the following recommendations: • Utilize resources, like job coaches who can provide on-site support. • Know your rights at work and how anti- discrimination laws can protect you. • Don’t reveal a disability on a resume - it could work against you. • If you have a visible disability, put your employer’s mind at ease early on, assuring them that you have the skills to do the job.
  56. 56. Where to learn more? There are interesting threads on Twitter every day – try searching for: • #ableist • #ableism • #AbledsAreWeird
  57. 57. Thank you! Twitter: @JohnKMcNabb October 24/25, 2019 October 26, 2019