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How to support coworkers with a disability

Posted by Glassdoor Team

Career Advice Experts

Last Updated May 5, 2022
|5 min read

Glassdoor is proud to partner with the incredible storytelling organization The Moth to bring you stories of work, self, and perseverance. The following is one of the stories we will share over the next few weeks that we hope will inspire you to know your worth and reach for what you deserve.

What makes a person want to hide their differences? Mary Theresa Archbold grew up in a world where people seemed to naturally accept her congenital amputation — she was born without a left arm and has been wearing a prosthesis since she was three months old. 

Her prosthetic arm was a perfectly natural part of her life, until a moment during a dance audition at her school when someone made her feel differently. Then Mary started devoting herself to hiding in plain sight. 

To have someone point this out to me so blatantly, I realized that that's how the world sees me. Not as normal, as something different.

For a long time, Mary grappled with what it meant to seem “normal.” She’d lost herself to the able-bodied world. But years later, when she became a mom and realized that her prosthesis was actually inhibiting her from properly caring for her son, Mary realized that seeming “normal” was overrated. Now, Mary’s son recognizes her more without her prosthetic arm. That’s their new normal. 

Talking about disabilities shouldn’t be taboo and it shouldn’t be something that only happens in hushed tones behind closed doors. Mary's story highlights how companies must work hard to create truly safe spaces and cultures where people like Mary don't feel the need to hide who they are and where their normal is "normal" for everyone.

The one person he looks to for trust, the one heartbeat he heard for 10 months is crying too. I didn't know how to take care of my son because my arm was in the way.

What you’re getting wrong about people with disabilities  

“I am not broken. I don’t need to be fixed,” writes Ola Ojewumi, an activist, journalist, and community organizer based in Washington, D.C. 

Like Mary, Ola experienced what it was like to have other people perceive her physical disability as a general inability, even when she was actually one of the most qualified candidates for the job. 

Being a better ally for employees with a disability starts with trying to understand more about their lived experience. Ola shared six tips for integrating people with a disability into the workforce, including:

  1. Think in terms of ability, not inability.
  2. Check your unconscious bias.
  3. Practice blind hiring.
  4. Don’t act like accommodations are “special treatment” (our note: they’re actually a legal right)
  5. If you see something, say something: If you see a colleague being mistreated, say something. If you see an opportunity for your office or workspace to be made more inclusive of someone’s needs, say something.
  6. Understand that this is your fight, too.

Minding your language is also a powerful tool to combat ableism which, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means: “Discrimination against people who are not able-bodied, or an assumption that it is necessary to cater only for able-bodied people.” 

People likely have no idea how many harmful ableist expressions have made it into our daily lexicon. Phrases like, “fall on deaf ears,” for instance. A little self-education can go a long way in ensuring that you’re actually honoring, not offending, your coworkers. 

What is disability inclusion in the workplace?

According to Understand.org, disability inclusion at work “offers employees with disabilities — visible and invisible — an equal opportunity to succeed, to learn, to be compensated fairly, and to advance. True inclusion is about embracing difference.” 

Recognize that some disabilities are visible, such as Mary’s congenital amputation, and some disabilities, such as chronic pain or illness and mental health disorders, are considered invisible or hidden disabilities. 

Let’s be clear on one thing though, disability inclusion is not a “nice to have.” The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees from discrimination based on a disability. Employees who are covered by the  ADA include:

  • An employee who has a disability (defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activity)
  • An employee with a history of impairment (defined as an employee  with a previous disability, for example, an employee recovering from an illness)
  • An employee who the employer regards as disabled (defined as an employer discriminating against an employee under the incorrect belief that the employee has a disability) 

Disability allyship and supporting your coworkers 

A 2019 study on Disabilities and Inclusion revealed that “a full 30% of the professional workforce fits the current federal definition of having a disability — and the majority are keeping that status secret.” Which brings us back to our original question: what makes people hide their differences?

Fear of bullying. Fear of being seen as a burden. Fear of not having their manager’s full support or being perceived as lazy or incapable. There’s generally a lot of fear among people with disabilities in the workplace, and it makes sense why. Here are a few ways workplaces can foster more inclusive environments:

  • Create an Employee Resource Group (ERG) that provides training, coaching, support and advocacy for employees with disabilities
  • Make company-wide disability training a regular practice
  • Develop a formal allyship program that centers around the needs of people with disabilities 

True allyship isn’t an afterthought. It’s necessary for both organizations and able-bodied employees to work together on ensuring that the workplace is a safe and inclusive space for all types of people.