We are all unique individuals with our own physical and mental abilities. A person’s abilities or disabilities are sometimes obvious, but at other times they are more covert. A disability or other condition that makes it more difficult to carry out certain activities is a personal issue, and it’s up to the person to decide how much to share. As an employer, coworker, or collaborator, you can do things to help make the medical and social implications of a disability less challenging.
Don’t prejudge. Everyone is unique and should be treated as such. One person may want to discuss their condition and needs openly, while another may prefer to keep it quiet and discuss it only with those who need to know. In either case, that person is the one best suited to know their limits and where they may need accommodation. They may have had years of practice in figuring out how to do all sorts of things, so allow them to use that expertise. They will also know which technological aids are available and which ones are useful.
Starting with a positive attitude can make a big difference. “Let’s determine how we can make this work,” will almost always be more successful than, “You probably can’t handle this, but . . .” Very often you will be surprised at how much someone can do if you let them try—without cutting corners on safety.
Ask before helping. Treat all people equally. Talk to the person, not to their interpreter or assistant. For example, do not grab their arm or wheelchair; instead, ask if they would like your assistance in getting up a steep slope. Do not interact with service animals. They are there to work and need to be free from distractions.
Help when asked. The most sure path to success is to give people the support they need. Explain what needs to be done and why and help them figure out how it can be accomplished. Then give them the tools they need to do it. Rearranging physical spaces to simplify access, providing scheduling flexibility, and breaking up tasks or information into smaller units are all possible accommodations that can be helpful for everyone.
Rethink work. One of the worst reasons to do something is because it has always been done that way. Think carefully about why certain tasks are done in certain ways and how responsibilities and tasks are assigned. Maybe grouping tasks in a different way or sharing information across departments would make more sense and consolidate redundant work.
Accommodations for all? Sometimes, a new way of doing things can turn out to be better than the old one and become the new standard. Many people thought their job could not be done remotely until it had to be. They were often surprised to find out how much they could accomplish and discovered ways to do things that previously weren’t possible remotely.
Just as it is with anyone else, communication is key when working with colleagues who have disabilities. Taking the time to listen and understand their needs and wants, then working with them to address the issues, will go a long way toward making the workplace productive and satisfying for everyone.
Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first issue of every month in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.