By Susan Hoffman
Contributor, Online Career Tips
Workplaces are often a mix of various ages, ethnicities and experience. For instance, your fellow employees and managers might be Baby Boomers or Generations X to Z; parents or single people; and workers just beginning or in the middle of their careers.
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Your company may also have employees with physical or mental disabilities. By federal law, an employer must provide “reasonable accommodations” to suit those employees’ needs during the workweek.
However, there are also small actions you may be able to take to help your coworkers with disabilities. These activities may help to alleviate frustration and make that person feel part of the team.
Initiate a Conversation
First, talk to your coworkers with disabilities. Let them guide you if there is specific help that they need; some people may prefer to avoid having their disability as a topic of focus, so let them lead your actions.
For instance, someone using a wheelchair might ask for some furniture or trash cans to be moved out of the way to make maneuvering the wheelchair easier. That person may also want your assistance to reach office supplies in an overhead cabinet or on a shelf.
Show Sensitivity to the Physical Needs of Coworkers with Disabilities
Ideally, put in some extra time and effort to accommodate a coworker’s physical needs. If you talk with a deaf coworker who is a lip reader, for instance, always face toward that person during a casual chat or when you’re speaking during a presentation. Similarly, be aware that training videos and presentations sent out to office staff might need closed captioning or text notes added to them so that a coworker with a hearing impairment can understand the material.
When you’re having a long conversation with another employee who is in a wheelchair, consider sitting next to them if possible. That prevents that person in the chair from getting strained neck muscles from looking up at you.
If you have a coworker who uses a cane or a walker and wants to take something from one room to another, ask if you can carry anything. It is difficult to turn a door handle, hold onto a cane or walker, and carry a tablet or laptop, all at the same time.
People with visual impairments might use screen reader software for work tasks. Ask your coworkers what they need done, and ensure that any electronic material you send out can be understood by screen readers. In meetings, verbally describe any visual material like charts and images, and ask people to identify themselves prior to the meeting so that a blind person understands who is in the room.
When an office party or other event is planned at an off-site location, check with the facility. Make sure that the site is easily accessible to employees using wheelchairs, crutches, canes or walkers.
Be Tactful When Offering Help to Coworkers with Disabilities
Sometimes, your coworkers may prefer to fend for themselves rather than ask for help. If you see a coworker in difficulties around a swinging door, for example, ask, “Can I get that for you?”
Coworkers in wheelchairs may prefer self-propulsion, rather than you pushing the chair. Ask if they want assistance, rather than automatically assuming your help is needed or welcome.
Remember that Disabilities Aren’t Always Visible
Some coworkers’ disabilities may not be immediately visible. For instance, a coworker might have a speech impairment. Be patient and give him sufficient time to respond rather than finishing his sentences for him.
Coworkers with physical and mental disabilities face challenges every day. But by taking the time to be tactful, supportive and considerate, your fellow employees will feel more valued at your workplace.