7 Ways to Collaborate with Coworkers with Disabilities

Accessible conference session featuring a room full of professionals, including a man in a wheelchair.

People without disabilities usually mean well when considering their coworkers with disabilities, but even good intentions can go awry or come across as thoughtless. Sometimes not knowing how to relate causes non-disabled workers to unintentionally ignore their disabled counterparts because they’re not sure how to interact without coming across as offensive or awkward. Here are some ways to include coworkers with disabilities professionally and socially in the workplace.

1. Learn their preferred communication method

Many disabilities cause people to prefer one communication method over another.  Some people with autism or other neurological issues may prefer emails over phone calls or face-to-face meetings. It gives them time to consider the message and thoughtfully formulate a response. Other people may respond best to in-person conversations so they can see body language and facial expressions to gain more context.

However, don’t assume you know which communication method they prefer. Just because your coworker is blind doesn’t mean he or she can’t read emails- assistive technology makes it possible. Don’t assume a coworker who is deaf can’t understand you in a face-to-face conversation. He or she may have partial hearing or be able to read lips. The bottom line is don’t assume you know how a person prefers to communicate. Ask them!

2. Include them in meetings

When carefully planning a meeting, be sure to include accommodations for all participants. Ask participants if they have any accommodations that you need to provide before the meeting. Make sure the meeting room is wheelchair accessible and push in chairs to make navigation easier. Make sure videos include captioning for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Provide a transcript for people who have trouble digesting information auditorily. Use large fonts on slides so they’re visible even to people in the back, and send them out to everyone ahead of time so those who would like can use assistive technology to access content. During the meeting, ask if people need clarification on any points, and give ample time for people who process information more slowly to gather their thoughts and formulate questions. Again, ask what accommodations they might need and don’t make assumptions.

3. Be friendly

Assume your disabled coworkers have the same interests any other coworkers would have. Coworkers with disabilities want to engage in the same “watercooler chats” as anyone else. They have lives and interests outside of work, and enjoy movies, TV, sports, fashion, restaurants and other hobbies. Talk about the home team’s painful loss that weekend, what they thought of the season finale, and whether they’ve tried the danishes in the breakroom. 

4. Ask for their input

If you are someone who is talkative or extroverted, it’s easy to accidentally exclude people who aren’t. Employees who are deaf or hard of hearing, or who process language more slowly, may be left out of decision-making simply because they don’t throw their hats in the ring quickly enough. Make sure to leave ample time to ask for everyone’s input, then listen carefully to all responses. Accept input from a variety of communication methods. If you’re asking for solutions in a meeting discussion, open it up to email comments afterward as well. If you’re looking for responses via email, allow employees to respond verbally as well. 

When you review responses and ideas from coworkers, make sure that everyone is responding. If you notice someone consistently not offering their opinion, ask why. Perhaps that person simply isn’t able to respond in a given format, or hasn’t understood what you’re asking for. Take time to clarify and give response options so everyone’s voice is heard.

5. Don’t treat anyone as “the token disabled person” 

Don’t just assume one person who has a disability is a spokesperson for all disabled people. Just because one coworker with a disability voices his or her concerns doesn’t mean they reflect the concerns of every worker with a disability in the company. Every disability is different, and every disability has a number of possible variations and levels of severity. Even people with the same disability might not need the same accommodations or have the same opinions regarding the disability. To make sure you’re getting feedback from people with a range of disabilities, consult an employee resource group for coworkers with disabilities. 

6. Be flexible

Whether you’re the manager of an employee with disabilities or just a colleague, be willing to be flexible. A person with disabilities may need to work from home from time to time to accommodate a doctor’s appointment, manage pain, or otherwise be more productive. They may need to schedule certain tasks for certain times of day according to when certain assistive technology is most easily available. Maybe your coworker would find it easier to create the report you need via Microsoft Word as opposed to the company standard PDF. Either way, everyone in the company can use the document, and even your coworker with a disability can access it with his or her assistive technology.

7. Ask for their expertise

People with disabilities may have solutions to problems that affect other groups as well. For example, some audio news services spend time and money trying to train elderly people to use the internet. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) simply made their service, NFB-NEWSLINE, available by phone, too. Problem solved. According to Harvard Business Review, 75% of employees with disabilities report having an idea that would drive value for their company. People with disabilities are used to having to think creatively to find solutions to everyday problems which can strengthen their inventiveness in the workplace as well. 

Collaborating with coworkers with disabilities doesn’t have to make anyone feel uncomfortable or awkward. Just being thoughtful will go a long way. Remembering that the person with a disability is a human being like everyone else will ensure positive interactions both professionally and personally. 

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Nina Overdorff

Nina comes to Onix with years of sales and marketing experience from a variety of industries, and holds a BS in Language Arts Education. Nina has a passion for words, storytelling, and information, which she believes everyone should have access to regardless of ability. After spending time as a teacher with a blind student, she became much more aware of the limitations and abilities of web accessibility, and how essential it is to those experiencing disabilities. “Being able to access information equally ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity for education, employment, and success in life.”