Do You Know Disability Etiquette?

Most people want to do the right thing, particularly on the job. However, there may be many different interpretations of what the right thing is, especially when it comes to how to treat people with disabilities. Further, the fear of doing something wrong can prevent people from authentically and fully engaging.

“Disability etiquette is another cornerstone in the evolution of diversity and inclusion,” said Jonathan Kaufman, president of DisabilityWorks Inc. “With an aging population, returning wounded warriors and the unique fact that the disability community is the only minority anyone can join, etiquette training will be vital for the long-term health of D&I strategies for corporations around the globe.”

Customers and co-workers come from a variety of backgrounds, and their customs, thinking, behavior, values and communication styles vary accordingly. Demographic shifts also introduce new people and unfamiliar ideas. Successfully navigating the evolving workforce and marketplace requires a realistic sense of what it is like to work with a disability. Diversity executives need to understand effective and respectful communication between diverse people, and how to provide for the physical and cultural needs of people with disabilities.

Why We Need Disability Etiquette
In 2008, the United States Census Department reported that people with disabilities represent the largest minority in the world. Nearly 20 percent of Americans — 54 million people according to the Census Department — qualify as having a disability. According to the Justice Department, this community’s disposable income is measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and the aggregate income more than doubles that. There is nothing touchy-feely or politically correct about paying attention to the human dynamics behind these numbers.

However, as Lobna “Luby” Ismail, founder and president of Connecting Cultures Inc., said, “too often the focus is on the ‘dis’ and not the ‘abled.’ Instead of disability, I title it diverse-ability. The unconscious and conscious or subtle ways in which people speak, or presumed misperceptions, feeds inequity before a person with a disability even gets hired. As a result, almost 70 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed.”

Disability is often less about physical or mental impairments than how society responds to real or perceived physical, mental and cognitive differences. As disability becomes a more common factor in the workplace, the need for inclusive approaches to communication and interaction increases. This requires an understanding of a new kind of etiquette.

Etiquette is a set of rules that articulate what constitutes socially acceptable behavior in a broad array of circumstances. Breaking these rules can cause embarrassment, discomfort and has the potential to alienate important clients, customers and colleagues.

“When thinking about language choices, be mindful to avoid invoking a medical or deficiency model for people with a disability,” said Deborah Dagit, chief diversity officer at Merck. “Words that speak to a person’s medical condition are rarely appropriate, and it is important to put the person first, e.g. a person with a disability versus diabetic, quadriplegic, etc. It is not so much about etiquette as it is respect and empowerment.”

Concern about doing something inappropriate can cause people to behave awkwardly or tentatively, make unintentional mistakes and cause injury or insult. Learning and practicing disability etiquette can foster interactions that are comfortable, meaningful and inclusive.

Regardless of a particular disability, the following behaviors are often appropriate to ensure proper etiquette:

Put people first, and not their disability. The language “people with disabilities” is an important variation to “disabled person.” Identifying people by their disability tends to increase the potential for stereotyping or imply a homogeneous group separate from society as a whole.

When communicating about disability, do not focus on ability level unless it is crucial to the situation at hand. Do not portray people with disabilities as heroic underachievers or long-suffering saints. In addition to overemphasizing the person’s disabilities, these characterizations also raise false expectations.

“People often associate the limitations of my body with limitations of the mind,” said Ileana Cruz-Martinez, manager of IT sourcing at NextEra Energy Inc. “It seems to be an unconscious bias — perhaps arising out of fear of the unknown. Often when people meet me and I tell them that I have a master’s degree and that I am a CPA, it is as if they can’t believe that a person with a disability can achieve those educational levels.”

Avoid sensationalizing and negative labeling. Saying “afflicted with,” “crippled with” or “victim of” devalues individuals with disabilities by portraying them as helpless objects of pity and charity. It is more neutral to describe somebody as having a disability such as “a person with AIDS,” rather than “an AIDS victim.”

Emphasize abilities, not limitations. For example, “uses leg braces or walks with crutches,” is more accurate than “confined to a wheelchair or wheelchair bound.” Wheelchairs and crutches represent independence, not a burden. To emphasize capabilities, avoid words that start with in, dis, un, or de that imply lacking or inferiority, such as invalid or defective.

Bypass condescending euphemisms. Many disability groups object to euphemisms to describe disabilities. Terms such as “handicapable,” “differently abled,” “special” and “challenged” reinforce the idea that people cannot deal honestly with their disabilities.

Maintain the integrity of each individual. Do not use words or phrases regarded as offensive or patronizing such as “freak,” “subnormal,” “vegetable,” “misshapen,” “feeble-minded” or “imbecile.”

Do not imply disease when discussing disabilities that result from a prior disease episode. For example, people who had polio and experienced aftereffects have post-polio syndrome. They are not currently experiencing the disease. Do not imply disease with people whose disability has resulted from anatomical or physiological damage — for example, a person with spina bifida or cerebral palsy. Individuals with disabilities should not be referred to as patients or cases unless their relationship with their doctor is under discussion, or they are referenced in a hospital or clinical context.

Creating an Inclusive Environment
There are myriad structural or technological solutions that can be used to adapt a workplace environment to create accommodations so that key workers can function at their highest levels. In addition to accessible tools such as ramps, easy access to offices, elevators and lifts, computers with voice recognition systems or verbal feedback can help engage employees who may otherwise be limited or unable to contribute.

People with disabilities continue to confront workplaces where environmental impediments prevent them from doing their jobs effectively. There are two important reasons why. One, there is a prevalent mindset around normalcy that does not include accessibility in its fullest form. Rather than seeing that environments and work processes should be designed to be inclusive of the nearly 20 percent of Americans with a disability, many environments view accessibility or accommodations as either necessary or bothersome and often costly. In that mindset, the short-term expenditure of time or money does not consider the long-term gain of skilled and dedicated employees, nor the potential legal risk and costs.

Second, accessibility is often an afterthought in physical environment and work process design. And when accessibility is included, these designs may not be constructed with but rather for people with disabilities. There are several things organizations can do to facilitate this process:

Include people with disabilities in the earliest stages of planning physical environments and work processes. This can be an important role for disability-related employee resource groups. Engaging people at this stage enables stakeholders to consider how people work, where people work, how people communicate and how information is shared. It is also more cost effective than changing existing structures.

Consider how people with disabilities experience the current environment. A six-foot-tall person who can walk may not understand how difficult it is for a person in a wheelchair to get into a room. A hearing person may have a difficult time appreciating how technology works for someone who is deaf or hard of hearing. Able-bodied people should make a conscious effort to consider alternatives.

Creating an inclusive culture requires an effort to make all employees aware of the kind of environment an organization is trying to create. This involves open communication about why it is important to have that kind of inclusiveness, and what is expected of every employee.

Acting Without Thinking
Many of these solutions may seem obvious. Yet people with disabilities deal with another level of challenge that is often more difficult to identify and address. “During my lifetime, I have never felt that someone doubted how competent I am because I am Hispanic or because I am a woman,” Cruz-Martinez said. “However, I have felt that people have doubted how competent I am because I use a wheelchair for mobility purposes. People generally don’t react to a person with a disability in an ‘I don’t like you because …’ way but rather in an ‘I don’t know what to do or how to act around you.’ There is a fear factor — a fear of the unknown.”

Intention may have nothing to do with the bias people with disabilities face. Research during the past 15 years has demonstrated the power of the unconscious mind to influence biased behaviors related to race, gender, appearance, sexual orientation and almost every other kind of identity distinction. Where disabilities are concerned, for example, a study conducted by Elizabeth Sandel, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Kaiser Permanente, showed unconscious bias can shape the way patients receive care. For example, bias was found to impact how conscious physicians are about making sure the appropriate equipment and support is ready.

In an article in the journal Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy created a distinction that may explain how unconscious, unintentional bias manifests. In Cuddy’s model, bias can be dissected in two: bias by warmth and competency-based bias. Bias by warmth is demonstrated when people tend not to like or feel comfortable with a particular kind of person. Even when people with disabilities do not encounter bias based on how warmly people do or don’t feel toward them, they may still experience bias in other ways.

For instance, people may go out of their way to help — or try to help — someone with a disability. However, underneath that well-intentioned action may lurk an unconscious sense that the person is not capable of helping him or herself. This can lead to patronizing, offensive or diminishing behavior. Further, the mind often makes irrational connections. When a person sees somebody who cannot use his or her legs, for example, the mind may generalize that inability to walk, and assume that person cannot do other things. For example, a person speaks loudly to people in a wheelchair as if their inability to use their legs impacts their hearing.

People have been trained by life experiences to see people with disabilities in a particular way. For example, many were raised to believe it is not polite to draw attention to a disability. Early programming can be tough to shake and can lead to these unconscious behaviors. To accelerate awareness and acceptance of difference:

• Assume there may be bias within perceptions and reactions to people with disabilities. This needn’t be a source of shame or embarrassment.

• Create an environment in which people can openly give each other feedback about how they experience each other’s behavior and encourage non-defensive listening.

• Track data that can reveal behavioral patterns. Measure how processes such as hiring practices, promotion rates, job assignments and performance reviews rate for people with disabilities versus other employees.

Developing an awareness of these biases takes active practice and compassion. The more people become consciously aware of their actions and guard against viewing those with disabilities through a narrow lens, the easier it is to develop an inclusive organization. Disability should be embraced as an integral part of an organization’s diversity and inclusion strategy. Like any other cornerstone of diversity, it is central to business strategy and corporate culture. Organizations committed to providing positive and inclusive work environments are more likely to enhance overall performance and increase profitability. When that happens, everybody wins.

Howard Ross is the founder and chief learning officer of Cook Ross Inc. and author of Reinventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance. He can be reached at