What Can You Do to Create a Welcoming Work Environment?

By Jim Hasse

A worker with a disability needs no more or no less respect (a sense of dignity) than does any other employee. Neither avoid him nor heap undue praise on him. Here are some other tips for building that harmony:

  • Stress to other workers that the employee with a disability was hired because he is qualified and can do the work. His disability was not and should not be a consideration. He will have to satisfy the same performance standards as they do.
  • Encourage the new employee to be candid about his disability. Offer him a chance to discuss it at a staff meeting.
  • Discourage the employee with a disability from playing a passive or manipulative role by making sure she knows you are interested only in what she can do and how—not what she can’t. Be sure her responsibilities and those of others are well defined and equal.
  • Treat everyone the same. Neither ignore nor highlight an employee with a disability.
  • Realize that employees will often have false perceptions about disability (maybe based on previous experiences with individuals who did not know how to handle their disability appropriately in a workplace situation). Be prepared to deal with those false assumptions, which often are simply due to lack of information. You must make it clear that a new employee with a disability is not to be judged until he has had time to establish himself as a member of the team.
  • Encourage a relaxed atmosphere that includes humor but does not tolerate stereotyping, bigotry, or mean humor.
  • Make sure a person taking on new duties is adequately compensated for them when you must shift a responsibility from one job description to another because of a disability. Higher pay or authority (or simply allowing for an exchange of tasks) can make the addition acceptable so it doesn’t breed ill will.
  • Let the employee with a disability and her coworkers handle issues not related to work.

Finally, be vigilant about typical misunderstandings and myths.

You set an inclusive tone by how well you interact with an employee who has a disability. How well you welcome, value, and respect her as well as other workers will have a direct effect on how well everyone works together. Establish clear guidelines for the type of work environment (based on your corporate values) you want to foster—and then consistently follow them. The harmony (and productivity) of your staff will pay you back many times over.

Workplace Interdependence Makes Disability Irrelevant

A bumblebee, if dropped into an open tumbler, will be there until it dies. It never sees the means of escape at the top but persists in trying to find some way out through the sides near the bottom. It will seek a way where none exists until it completely destroys itself.

As a culture, the business world seems penned in, flat on the floor, buzzing around like a bumblebee in a tumbler. We continue to work toward a twenty-first-century world with workplaces where everyone can be included as members of a team trying to reach a goal. But until we understand the real and elemental nature of how people work together, differences that have nothing to do with working together will appear to be insurmountable obstacles to us. By clinging to those differences, we aren’t achieving the harmony and productivity we seek.

To unburden our U.S. society of inequities and to improve business itself, it is time to change how we look at interdependency in the workplace. The real nature of workplace relationships goes beyond teamwork. The real action is in the independence of those relationships, and interdependency makes any disability (or any other difference) you may find among the members of a team irrelevant.

Why Disability Is Irrelevant

Teamwork is about how our job functions interrelate. But, with cross-training, functions are not specific to the worker. There is something deeper and less tangible that makes each of us unique and can make a workplace fall apart if someone who plays a vital role leaves.

Yes, disability can have an impact on a worker’s function. If a truck driver goes blind, he can’t be a driver any more. But disability is irrelevant in the areas that are more vital to the health of a company—those roles that everyone else depends on.

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While a person in a wheelchair may need someone to take over or assist with a job function, who does what is less important than who can best help the team achieve its objectives. That means we need to stop looking at individuals in terms of their functions and whether one individual can perform every single function in his job description without assistance from another person or a machine.

Is it true that the best candidate for a position exactly matches the description of a specific job? If, for instance, we’re presented with someone who can’t sit right down and use a computer without some modifications because she is totally blind and that poses an apparently irremediable problem for us, there will never be true integration.

However, integration can take place if we understand that this person, using various other tools, can share responsibilities with a sighted person and can do the work in a different way. Using any number of variations, that person, like all others, has a vital role to play in a workplace setting.

But, to learn how minor the differences are among us and what strengths a group of people have, we must get to know each other. The workplace must be integrated. And to integrate the workplace, we must understand that differences are minor and strengths are many. At times, laws may tend to force the issue so that the integration begins.

But perhaps it can also take individual hiring managers, such as you, who can see beyond the surface issues to the profound interdependencies among us. If we are all so interdependent, why should the fact that one of us is disabled be such a problem?

Excerpted from Perfectly Able: How to Attract and Hire Talented People with Disabilities by Lighthouse International, Compiled and Edited by Jim Hasse. Copyright © 2010 Lighthouse International. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved. http://www.amacombooks.org.

JIm Hasse is the owner of Hasse Communication Counseling in Madison, WI, a company he founded that uses online tools to provide one-on-one career coaching for baby boomers with acquired disabilities who want to continue to work despite their newly found vulnerabilities. Contact him at jimhasse@perfectlyable.com.

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