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According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, an Individual with a Disability (IWD) is defined as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. Taking this definition into account, it is no surprise IWDs make up the largest minority group in the country.

In the past few years, government agencies, including Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), have set in place regulations to improve job opportunities for IWDs. With hiring enforcement efforts in place, there has been an increase in IWDs in the workforce. With that in mind, diversity etiquette has become more important than ever.

When it comes to interacting with IWDs, people tend to overthink things. There is a fear of not knowing what to do or say—not wanting to offend anyone. Those are normal reactions, and as HR professionals, it is our job to know how to respond to these tentativeness and understand how to promote effective disability etiquette in our organizations.

According to the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN), one of the biggest hurdles to workplace accessibility is attitudinal. There may be misconceptions about people with disabilities and the work they can perform. EARN shares the following examples of attitudinal barriers:

  • Inferiority: The employee is seen as a “second-class citizen.”
  • Pity: People feel sorry for the employee and are patronizing as a result.
  • Hero worship: People consider a person with a disability living independently to be “special.”
  • Ignorance: The employee is dismissed as incapable because of his or her disability.
  • Multi-sensory affect: People assume that the employee’s disability affects his or her other senses.
  • Stereotypes: People make both positive and negative generalizations about disabilities.
  • Backlash: People believe the employee is being given an unfair advantage because of his or her disability.
  • Denial: People may not believe that hidden disabilities are legitimate, and therefore do not require accommodations.
  • Fear: People are afraid they will offend an employee with a disability by doing or saying the wrong thing, and as a result, will avoid the employee.

As HR professionals, it’s our responsibility to change these attitudinal barriers by discussing disability with employees. Some organizations find it beneficial to conduct training to broaden perspectives.

Even without formal training, there are still things you can do now to better interact with IWDs in the workplace. According to Greystone Programs, here are some tips to use when communicating with IWDs:

  • Use common sense and extend common courtesies to everyone.
  • Don’t patronize; treat adults like adults.
  • Be patient. People with disabilities and seniors might require more time to express themselves or to move about.
  • Speak directly to the person and maintain eye contact; don’t speak through a companion, aide, or interpreter.
  • Describe and address people with disabilities appropriately. Avoid terms such as handicapped, victim, afflicted, or confined.
  • Make sure your business is accessible.
  • Become familiar with accessible building standards and put them in place wherever possible.
  • Offer assistance and listen for a response—follow any specific instructions.

With new regulations in place encouraging more IWDs in the workplace, it’s important organizations understand how to practice effective disability etiquette. For additional tips for interacting with IWDs in the workplace, check out this list of tips provided by EARN.

For more information on disability etiquette, please contact a Berkshire compliance expert at 800.882.8904 or email [email protected].


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