Working With People Who Have Disabilities

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If you ask people with disabilities what prevents them from being fully included in society and at work, they typically respond that attitude is the biggest obstacle. It’s not impairment that holds them back, rather stereotypes and negative beliefs about people with disabilities are the greatest impediments to their active participation in the workforce and all the economic and social implications non-participation entails.[1]

We Avoid What We Don’t Understand

Research shows that many employers hesitate to hire people with disabilities because of inaccurate perceptions and a lack of knowledge.[2] They don’t know enough about what they can expect from disabled employees, what it will cost to accommodate them, what options are available if performance is not acceptable and how other employees and customers will react. To top it all, most employers have no personal experience of working with or supervising someone with a disability, so they just don’t know how it works.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of research and information to help employers educate themselves about this under-employed segment of the population and most of it is good news.  

The one area where facts are still a little sparse is in the practical, day-to-day knowledge employers and co-workers need to know to make the workplace work for people with disabilities.

Practical Workplace Tips

Fortunately, some employers are leading the way and graciously sharing what they’ve learned. One such employer is the University of Washington. The University has made its internal training program Strategies for Working with People who have Disabilities available online under a Creative Commons license so that other employers can use the information for their own internal training programs.

The material draws on lessons the University has learned from working with both disabled employees and disabled students who aspire to find their own place in the workforce after graduation. Created to inform employers interested in hiring disabled students as interns and entry-level employees, it provides a straight-forward introduction into what an inclusive workplace needs.  

Complete with slide content and detailed facilitator notes, the program offers practical tips for working with and accommodating employees with a wide range of disabilities, including:

  • Visual, hearing and speech impairment
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mobility impairments
  • Health impairments
  • Psychiatric disabilities

The training program’s concluding comments contain some simple and powerful reminders as well as a few fundamentals that make sense in every workplace.

When working with a person who has a disability, keep in mind that we are all more alike than different. Each person comes to a new job with unique skills and abilities… People who interact with people who have disabilities have a great impact on their on-the-job success…Expect that people with disabilities are there to succeed. Keep your expectations high. Be positive and proactive in helping them achieve success.”

Starting with some fundamentals

  • Have policies and procedures in place for addressing accommodation needs for people with disabilities.
  • Make sure your facility is accessible to people with mobility impairments.
  • Provide clear signage in large print.
  • Discuss with the employee his/her needs and ideas for accommodations.
  • Select work materials early so that they can be procured in appropriate formats in a timely manner.

Of course, the most important shift required for change to happen is the one that occurs in the mind. Removing barriers that prevent access to a building or a restroom can be a lot easier than letting go of a strongly held belief. But with 20% of the U.S. population living with some form of disability, the tide is beginning to turn. In the words of Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, “Too many corporate leaders overlook the ability and just focus on the disability. I would urge business leaders to not be on the wrong side of history."[3]


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Photo credit: photo by nipitphand, courtesy of

[1] An Open Letter to Employers: Employing Persons with Disabilities

[2]  Mark L. Lengnick-Hall, Philip M. Gaunt, Adrienne A. R. Brooks Why Employers Don’t Hire People With Disabilities: A Survey of the Literature

[3] Cited by Shanna Belott Think the Disability Inclusion Movement Isn't About You? Think Again

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