Fitting In and Succeeding with a Disability at Work

Posted by Daniel J. Ryan on June 15, 2011
Fitting In and Succeeding with a Disability at Work

It would be nice if once you had succeeded in getting hired, you no longer had to worry about the way your disability impacts your work. Unfortunately, that's not the case. You will need to remain cognizant of the ways in which your disability affects the way you do your job, as well as the way in which people perceive that your disability affects the way you do your job.

There are several aspects to this concern. First of all, you need to make sure that you have the necessary tools to perform your job effectively. Second, you need to be attentive to the perceptions and attitudes of those around you. You alone will never change their attitudes about people with disabilities, but you can be successful in changing their attitudes about you.

Normalizing Your Disability for Your Peers and Coworkers
It's not just the disabled employee who wants to appear "normal." It's true for the child in the schoolyard who wants to be asked to play kickball, and it is true for the new worker who wants to be asked to join the bowling league. Too oft en for people with disabilities, these invitations do not come right away.

With the support of the people in the human resources office, as well as from your hiring manager, you may want to take some proactive steps to educate your coworkers about your disability.

There are all kinds of tales of people overreacting when discovering that a coworker has a disability. People usually overreact out of ignorance, not out of malice. People who have AIDS or are HIV-positive have been almost universally feared in the workplace. Workers have raised concerns about catching the virus by using the same phone, by sharing a computer, or by using the same copy machine. With a little education (and assuming that everyone is using this equipment as intended), those fears dissipate quickly.

Sometimes people's first reaction is not fear, but rather a desire to help. This genuine caring spirit, when combined with misinformation, can have interesting results as well. Although not directly a workplace story, I recall attending a conference of College Disability Service Directors in New Orleans. A group of us went out to one of the city's hundreds of nice restaurants. One of our party was deaf and communicated using sign language. The hostess, seeing this, went out of her way to be helpful. That is to say, she talked v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. Then, to top it off, she handed out the menus. She was proud as a peacock as she handed our deaf friend a Braille menu. Our friend, who has a great sense of humor, looked at the menu, looked at us, then looked at the waitress with a straight face and began rubbing the menu against her ear. Then she said, "I think I'll have the special."

Most disability-specific organizations publish materials that educate people about that specific disability. For example, you can get information about what to do in the event that a person has a seizure from Epilepsy Action at

By providing your coworkers with this kind of information, you do several things:
. You eliminate misinformation about your disability.
. You provide accurate information about your disability.
. You create an open dialogue with coworkers about your disability rather than having the only discussions take place at whisper level.

This may not be the first time you have encountered the need to educate people about your disability. If you use a service animal, you may have had to explain 1,000 or more times that it is a working animal and that the well-meaning pats of strangers can actually cause harm. I have a friend who is blind. Once a month someone tries to drag him across the street, when in fact he is waiting for a bus, not waiting for someone to earn his next scouting badge. To get to this point, you must have a good sense of humor, and you have probably come to the understanding that people are usually well-meaning. By educating people, not only do you help break down their attitude toward you, but to some extent you poke a pinhole through their wall of ignorance. Over time, with enough pinpricks, the light of day will begin to shine through.

Excerpted from Job Search Handbook for People with Disabilities by Daniel J. Ryan with permission from JIST Publishing.

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