Getting to know a colleague with a disability

Audio version of this blog – click play above

As a person with a visible disability, I often find that some non-disabled people struggle with initial conversation and how to act around me. Most of the time, this is because of awkwardness. People don’t always know what to say or fear saying the wrong thing, so they opt to say nothing.

However, disability is nothing to shy away from; in fact, conversation and getting to know someone is the best way to start breaking down stigmas. Here are some dos and don’ts for when you’re getting to know someone who is disabled or neurodiverse.

Do

Acknowledge the person first and the disability second

This can be the first stumbling block for a lot of people, especially if they haven’t interacted with a person with a disability before. I can’t stress enough that we’re just ordinary people. We just have slightly different needs to you. Try your best to see us first and our disability second.

Ask questions

Quote from Riley Barry via Facebook, May 2022: "My diagnosis is for me to share."

Curiosity is normal. When I started to work, I learned that I was the first disabled person most of my colleagues had ever interacted with or spoken to. Naturally, they asked questions about my condition and how I worked because of it.

Please be aware that just because you ask questions doesn’t mean you’re entitled to answers. Many disabled people like to answer questions as it breaks down barriers and helps them be seen as an individual. Remember that not everyone is comfortable with disclosing their experiences and you have to respect that.

Be aware of invisible disabilities

Not every person with a disability has a visible one. Some people may have ADHD, autism or another form of neurodiversity. Others could have a chronic illness that doesn’t present physically.

You never know what someone is going through, even though you may think you do. So, just be aware of that and treat everyone with respect and kindness.

Be mindful of the language you use

This one links with the first point. Make sure to use person-first language as often as possible, as I have throughout this article. Always make an effort to identify the person before their disability, i.e. “Our new colleague has cerebral palsy” versus “Our new disabled colleague.”

It may seem like these two statements are saying the same thing. Effectively they are. However, the first uses the colleague as the subject, which is the important part of the statement. The second highlights the person’s disability first, which can be alienating and stipe a person of their identity.  

View a disabled colleague as equal

Irrespective of a person’s disability, if they’re working, it’s because they can do the job. They’re not there as some token gesture. They just have different life experiences, which have given them a lot of skills. Allow them the respect and credit they deserve.

Don’t

Don’t move mobility aids

It may seem obvious, but people have done it to me. It doesn’t matter if it’s a walking stick or a wheelchair. You don’t play with them, move them without our consent or tamper with them.

Mobility aids are an extension of a person and vital for getting around. Unless a person tells you otherwise, leave them alone.

Meme of Gru from the film "despicable me" with a whiteboard that reads:
1. "Thank you for your enquiry about wheelchair access"
2. "there is only one step into the shop"
3. "we are pleased to say we have full disabled access"
4. "there is only one step into the shop"

Don’t talk down to us

This one frustrates the disabled community. On mass. Don’t talk down to a person with a disability. I assure you that we can understand. We’re not the office novelty or children that need to be coddled.

Also, never talk to someone else on our behalf. I mean talking to someone else and expecting them to answer for us.

Don’t help us unless we ask you too

You might go to help a colleague who is struggling with something. After all, that’s the decent thing to do. However, I can say from experience it’s embarrassing and demeaning when someone helps me without my consent.

I have no problem receiving help; I just like to be asked first. Especially if it’s from someone I don’t know well. Just always ask if it’s okay before you jump in to help. And don’t get offended if the offer isn’t accepted.

Don’t pretend to have a disability or use outdated language

I think this one is obvious but don’t pretend to have a disability or mimic the actions of a colleague that is disabled. Also, avoid outdated terms. Although I doubt many people would now, it does still happen.

Quote from Ceri Anne via Facebook, May 2022: "Don't presume my abilities and that I don't have capacity"

I’ve seen this kind of behaviour passed off as a joke, and it’s not funny. It’s cruel and belittling. I guarantee that someone around you has or knows someone with a disability, and it’s horrible to witness.  

Following these points will help you break the ice with a new co-worker. If in doubt, always be mindful, have empathy, and consider how others will receive your actions and comments.

About Bua

Bua was founded to increase disabled and neurodiverse employment and inclusion. Bua offers disability and neurodiversity workshops for organisations seeking to change their culture. Get in touch by email or using our contact form to book yours. Bua also offers free training for individuals.

About the Author

Lauren is a freelance writer from Falmouth. After graduating from university, she took a keen interest in writing about disability, so her story and others like it could be told with passion and conviction.

Leave a Reply