Tips for Employers When Interacting with Disabled Employees

Getting Back into the Game
June 7, 2021

Mike Moore, is a former middle and high school principal who became blind and took part in the disability interactive process with his then employer.  Today, he consults with organizations and provides tips on how best to interact and communicate with disabled employees.

Tips for Employers When Interacting with Disabled Employees

By Mike Moore

The best advice I can give to an employer managing the disability interactive process with a disabled employee is to know what you don’t know, and work to fill the knowledge gaps to ensure that your disabled employee is not impacted.  Do your homework, admit what you don’t know, seek out resources to fill your knowledge gap, and get comfortable being uncomfortable when seeking to understand the specific limitations your employee has. These things will ensure a better outcome and a positive interactive process environment for your disabled employee:

  1. Learn the Vocabulary:  Generally disabled persons do not like being referred to as handicapped.  Don’t be afraid to ask an employee what term they prefer such as visually-impaired, blind, deaf, hearing impaired, etc.  If you are unsure, ask, or use first person language for example, instead of saying “the wheelchair bound employee,” say, “the employee who uses a wheelchair.”
  2. Seek to Understand How the  Disability Impacts the Employee:  No one expects you to be an expert in every disability, but you can learn so much by taking the time to do some basic research.  For example, if the employee is visually-impaired or blind, understand there are different levels of what your employee may be able to see and this  will be relevant in workplace accommodation discussions. Don’t be afraid to ask the employee if he/she would be comfortable to explain if they have any sight, see light/dark, shapes etc. Don’t assume you understand, and don’t be afraid to ask the employee to help you. The more you know, the better you will be at brainstorming accommodation ideas with the employee.
  3. Establish Preferred Communication Modes:  Ask if the employee prefers to be communicated with via email, phone, text, etc. Ask the employee if there are any challenges with your standard communication protocols. For example, many employers send letters via USPS and via emailed PDF. Find out if the employee needs or prefers a word formatted letter or the text of the letter inserted into the email. Also, use of images, text boxes, etc. can make communication more cumbersome for the employee and a small adjustment on your end can really show the employee you care.
  4. Know Your Resources:  If you are the employee’s point person for the disability interactive process, don’t worry if you are not a specialist in the disability or even if you have no experience accommodating a specific disability. A basic internet search, reaching out to a disability advocacy group such as the National Federation of the Blind, or similar, can provide you with information that can ensure that while you are learning on the job, your disabled employee is not suffering from your lack of knowledge. Don’t be afraid to reach out to experts in the field who may have experience they can share or even bringing in a disability consultant to assist you to learn on the job.
  5. Use Adaptive Technology Experts:  While it is impossible to know it all, you can know your resources. For persons with significant physical limitations, including vision and hearing impairments, loss of limbs, etc. it is critical that your lack of knowledge about technology and equipment does not impact your ability to find and implement accommodations that can mitigate an impairment and support employees to do their jobs fully. This is even more important when accommodating an employee with a new disability who may not be able to ask for what they need. When I lost my vision, I was completely unaware of what I needed and was unable to tell my employer how to assist. Employer’s need to understand that in situations like this, they need to fill in the knowledge gaps, and contracting with an Adaptive Technology Expert is the key.
  6. Review General Etiquette:  Review general decorum and share this information with others who will be involved with the disabled employee.  There are many sites that outline these, but my favorite tips include:
    • Talk directly to the person with a disability, not the facilitator or Human Resource person who may be assisting with the interaction and meeting
    • If you don’t know, don’t assume – just ask the employee directly
    • Ask before you touch a disabled person or their device(s)
    • If you use a common phrase such as “gotta run!” to someone in a wheelchair, or “you had to see it to believe it,” to a visually-impaired person, don’t apologize.  It is understand these aren’t meant to be hurtful, and apologizing will just draw unneeded attention. If you are aware of saying this, don’t do it again, but don’t call it out and just move on.

In the end, most of your disabled employees appreciate your good-faith efforts to seek out the information that you need to find reasonable accommodations to assist someone with a disability to work, fully and safely within their limitations. You don’t have to be the most knowledgeable, but you do need to understand that as the disability compliance liaison at your employer, you have to care the most in finding reasonable accommodations.