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Disability Etiquette Starts with Common Sense

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR  10/1/2007
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Employers might be more likely to focus on disability etiquette issues during October as part of a National Disability Employment Awareness Month celebration. But experts say companies often don't go far enough in educating employees about disability issues.

"A lot of organizations focus on the practical things--what is dictated by law--and don't do the broad educational training," says Lori Golden, AccessAbilities Leader at Ernst & Young. Disabilities awareness is part of mandatory inclusiveness training at the firm, but the training doesn't end in the classroom. "We find one of the most effective things we can do is give people smaller chunks of content that is easier to understand," Golden says. Examples include a disabilities awareness quiz in the daily newsletter, the "Who Wants To Be Disabilities Inclusive?" game show and a video featuring employees discussing disabilities-related issues.

Business Bonus

Golden, who is charged with building a disabilities-inclusive culture at Ernst & Young, suggests that the added effort pays off in business results. "Running a business is all about the relationships you build," she says, and is why teaming is a core value at Ernst & Young. "Effective teaming has to be built on solid working relationships," she says.

"Knowing what is right to say and what is right to do is not just about being courteous; its about making everyone comfortable," she continues. "People who are comfortable can be more open, and can communicate and connect better to one another, thereby enabling better relationships."

Make It Comprehensive

But some companies haven't addressed disabilities-related training at all as part of their diversity initiatives, says Nadine Vogel, president of Springboard Consulting LLC , a marketing and business strategy firm in Mendham, N.J., with expertise in the special needs community. And others don't go far enough in their training.

"When a company has included disability [in its training], it usually shows people in a wheelchair or a blind person using a cane or someone using sign language; the things we visibly see," Vogel says, even though people with physical disabilities are actually the minority in the United States. "They don't talk about invisible disabilities like autism."

But Vogel says companies should focus more on common sense and respect as outcomes of training and less on accumulating in-depth knowledge of every type of disability.

"People with disabilities may get stares from children or adults," Vogel says. "We need to make sure that, to the employee, its business as usual. Be respectful. Treat them like anyone else unless and until they ask for special assistance. Training is particularly important for retail and hospitality environments, which are often staffed by young and inexperienced workers."

For example, Vogel says, there is a societal notion that people with disabilities don't have the same interests or needs as other people, such as an interest in cosmetics or a need for a bathing suit. "Don't assume, no matter what," she says. "If a person [with a visible disability] comes to a cosmetic counter and wants to sample cosmetics, treat them like any other customer. Don't make an assumption based on the way they look or speak that they shouldn't be doing that," she says. "I've witnessed adults with Down syndrome in retail stores being spoken to as if they are children."

Train Everyone

"Companies should avoid the temptation to limit disabilities etiquette training only to those who deal with the public on a face-to-face basis," Vogel says. Call center employees will need to know how to deal with callers with hearing and speaking issues, for example.

But employers need to remember that their employees' impact on customers and clients extends far beyond the workplace. "Every employee should have enough basic training in etiquette so that, wherever they are, they are representing the company appropriately," Vogel says. "Your company internally becomes your company externally," she adds, "any time an employee answers the question where do you work?"

Ernst & Young provides employees with tip sheets that give basic information on topics such as interview etiquette and watch your words. Each includes examples that demonstrate how to be respectful. "The more we give our people that information the better they are able to relate to one another," Golden says.

"Whether its [via] our newsletter, at a meeting or in a fun, interactive format, people are getting bits and pieces over time," Golden says. "It lets people get more engaged and, because its layered over time, it tends to stick more."

Reaping Rewards

"We really feel this is the future. It's not just a compliance issue; it's how you create an environment in which people can feel supported and valued so they can do their best work," Golden says. "Accommodations are important, but you need to give them a culture where they can thrive."

"The investment in disabilities etiquette training can pay off when it comes to customers and recruitment efforts," Vogel says. "People with disabilities talk about what kinds of companies are best and most sensitive to their needs and always believe that it must be a great company to work for," she added. "Employees who see their companies invest in such training will be more likely to refer friends and even adult dependents with disabilities as employment opportunities arise."

Disability Etiquette Tips

The U.S. Department of Labors Office of Disability Employment Policy offers employers informational resources on topics such as communicating with and about people with disabilities. For example:

  • Extend common courtesies to people with disabilities. Extend your hand to shake hands or hand over business cards. If the individual cannot shake your hand or grasp the card, he or she will tell you and direct where you may place the card.
  • If the person has a speech impairment, and you are having difficulty understanding what he or she is saying, ask the individual to repeat, rather than pretend to understand. Listen carefully, and repeat back what you think you heard to ensure effective communication.
  • If you believe that an individual with a disability needs assistance, go ahead and offer the assistancebut wait for your offer to be accepted before you try to help.
  • If you are speaking to a person who is blind, be sure to identify yourself at the beginning of the conversation and announce when you are leaving. Dont be afraid to use common expressions that refer to sight, such as See you later.
  • If you wish to get the attention of a person who is deaf, tap the person gently on the shoulder or arm. Look directly at the person, and speak clearly in a normal tone of voice. Keep your hands away from your face, and use short, simple sentences. If the person uses a sign language interpreter, speak directly to the person, not to the interpreter.
  • If you encounter an individual with a service animal, such as a dog, do not touch or distract the animal. Service animals are working, and it breaks their training to interact with others when they are on duty. When the animal is not working, some owners might allow interaction.
  • If you are having a conversation with a person who uses a wheelchair, if at all possible put yourself at the persons eye level. Never lean on or touch a persons wheelchair or any other assistive device. A persons assistive device is part of the persons personal space, and it is jarring or disturbing for anyone to have his or her personal space invaded.
  • If you are speaking with an individual with a cognitive disability, you may need to repeat or rephrase what you say. If you are giving instructions on how to perform a task, you may also need to give the instructions in writing.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) web site also includes a variety of links to online etiquette guides .

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is online writer/editor for SHRM.

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