A Series of “Flawless Facts” by Lesa Bradshaw -Topic 1

One of the key objectives in transforming an organization into an equitable, inclusive culture involves ‘normalising’ diversity to the point where all people have the same opportunity to perform based on their merits rather than judgements being made on stereotypes. When it comes to disability, many of the barriers to inclusion lie in the ‘awkwardness’ that many people feel when engaging directly with persons with a disability, as the ‘fear of offending’ and the confusion around ‘etiquette’ result from a lack of familiarity with this form of diversity.

A good starting point in addressing this is to:

  1. Understand some of the societal beliefs about disability which underpin our behavior.
  2. Create more awareness around the ‘etiquette’ of behavior when engaging with people with a disability.
  1. Commonly held societal beliefs around ‘disability’:
  • Objects of pity

The tendency  to feel sorry for people with a disability often leads to partronising attitudes which detract from the person’s ability to be recognized as a value adding employee or member of society

  • Objects of ‘inspiration’

We tend to have low standards of expectation in terms of the ability of people with a disability to lead a ‘normal’ life. So often when we hear of someone doing just that, we label them as ‘brave’ and ‘inspiring’ for merely adapting their approach to enable them to perform day to day tasks. This is a bit of a slap in the face for those who are truly doing something inspiring!

  • Ignorance around causality

There are many myths and culturally-influenced explanations as to why someone has a disability – some  view it as some form of ‘punishment’ for others’ wrong doings, others attribute it to evil forces, others believe it occurs to make the rest of us realize how lucky we are! The reality is that sometimes ‘life just happens’ – as it does in all species, ‘glitches’ occur either as the result of genetics, accidents, being attacked by a predator etc. So avoid making people with a disability into a lesson for others.

  • The ‘multiple-impairment’ stereotype

Very often, the presence of one impairment is misunderstood as also including other impairments. A classic example is represented in the term ‘deaf and dumb’ where a person who is deaf, who has not learned to communicate in a spoken language, is often assumed to be cognitively impaired as a result.

  • The ‘lessor’ citizen

People with a disability are often placed in ‘special’ categories where they are excluded from mainstream opportunities and perceived as ‘second class citizens’ who require charity. Being perceived as a ‘social welfare’ sector of the population often leads to a lack of accountability in terms of proper service delivery

  • The ‘fear’ of offending:

Because disability as a form of diversity has been kept so segregated, many people are not sure of the proper ‘etiquette’ in terms of how to engage with a person with a disability, and fear that they may offend. The consequence of this is often reflected in a lack of integration into a team, or a tendency to avert situations which may cause this discomfort by avoiding a person with a disability altogether.

  • Denial

Many people with ‘hidden’ disabilities (those that are not ‘obvious’) refuse to acknowledge that they have a disability, or will resist disclosing this to their employer, as they may fear discrimination or have the same views on disability as many others and do not want to be labeled as such.

  • The ‘special treatment’ backlash

In some situations, the value of a person with a disability in the workplace is diminished as others may perceive them to be given unfair advantages or held to lower standards of performance. Reasonable accommodation is often misunderstood to be ‘special treatment’ rather than an ‘equal opportunity’ measure, which can lead to resentment.

The consequences of these beliefs which result in attitudinal barriers is reflected in a society which expects low performance standards from people with a disability, resulting in them being relegated to low-skills jobs, with little investment in their training and development, and extremely low prospects of promotion. Whilst our labour and constitutional laws support equal opportunities in employment, attitudinal barriers that often lead to illegal discrimination cannot be overcome simply through laws. One effective way to minimize these barriers is to ‘normalise’ disability as just another form of diversity, and create greater awareness around ‘etiquette’ so as to build a culture of comfort, respect and mutual appreciation.

  1. Here are a few ‘etiquette’ tips for promoting respect and inclusion of people with a disability:
  • Respect the person’s privacy – In my experience as a wheelchair user, it astounds me how often complete strangers will approach me to ask me “what happened to you?”. Consider that people acquire an impairment in different ways, some circumstances may have involved trauma, and they may not be comfortable sharing this with a stranger. However, when in workplace situations, it is fine to enquire about the functional impact of the impairment in relation to the job, as a means of exploring reasonable accommodation requirements. In a nutshell, focus on the functional impact in the job, rather than the person’s ‘story’.
  • Remember the key to equitable treatment is ‘empathy’, not ‘sympathy’. It is good to understand the dynamics of an individual’s world when exploring how best to include them, as this will give you an appreciation of the barriers which need to be addressed, however this does not equate to allowing double standards in performance due to pity. Everyone in life has some challenge to manage, living with a disability is just one of these.
  • Never patronize people by using that ‘pity’ tone in your voice when engaging, or throw about the words ‘shame’ when it is not even topic related. Engage with the person with the same respect and tone as you would anyone else.
  • Never feel nervous to offer assistance to a person with a disability. This is just good neighbourliness. If your offers are rejected, then don’t feel bad – just move on. However if the offer is accepted, then always ask how best to assist first, rather than rushing in and taking over.
  • Talk directly to the person when engaging with them, not to their companion. Even in a situation where the person is unable to communicate directly, and a companion steps in to assist, it is common courteousy  to continue to include the individual with a disability in the conversation.
  • Avoid labeling people as ‘disabled’ or by their impairment (eg epileptic, paraplegic) – rather refer to the person first ie Person with a Disability, Person with epilepsy. This frames the ‘impairment’ as a description rather than a defining quality.
  • Never pretend to understand someone if they have a speech impairment and you are having difficulty following what they are saying. Rather ask the person to repeat their message as it leads to better communication and respect. Remain relaxed, don’t feel embarrassed – after all, you would extend the same courteousy to someone who had a strong accent? It’s no different in terms of etiquette.
  • Remember that all people are unique – some are confident, some are not; some are ambitious, some are not; some are easy to get along with, some are not. The same applies to people with a disability – take care to judge people on their individual merits, not on a stereotype. I have often heard the comment “people with a disability are hard working and increase productivity because they are happy to be working” – I find this generalization odd, as I have met some very lazy people with a disability, just as I have met some very productive people. Beware of generalizations!
  • Above all, remember there is a person with a personality in front of you, not a disability. If you do feel that you have done something offensive, make light of the situation and be open that you may not be sure of the etiquette. Get over it quickly, and move on with the conversation at hand.
  • Remember to share awareness around disability as a ‘normal’ form of diversity on a consistent basis throughout your communication strategies and campaign.

On a final note, it is worth remembering that around 15% of the world’s population have a disability (most of whom were not born with an ‘impairment, but rather acquired it at some point in their life’s journey), and that this is one form of diversity which anyone can join in a matter of seconds. So it is, in fact, quite ‘normal’ to experience the diversity of disability first hand at some point in your life. Perhaps a point to ponder?

For more information on our Disability Awareness Workshops and Online Learning experiences, contact us on lesa@bradshawleroux.co.za

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