Important Legal Tips for Communicating with Disabled Employees

Since everyone deserves to be treated with respect, employers must make sure that they’re communicating professionally and politely with all their disabled workers. Careless employers who speak callously with their disabled workers not only set a poor example for everyone else in the workplace – they also increase their chances of being sued for unlawful discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Here are some other important tips that can help you create a more pleasant work environment for everyone – that’s also fully compliant with the ADA.

Examples of workplace situations that may require special communication skills

  • When someone present in a meeting has a hearing disability. Should there be an employee present with a known hearing impairment, always remind everyone to speak one at a time – and never “over” one another. That will help everyone more easily follow the conversation and possibly take notes. Of course, never refer to the person by name who may need this simple accommodation.
  • Always speak directly to the disabled person. Even when someone has a sign language interpreter, always turn and speak to the disabled person – and not their helper or other companion – whenever possible.
  • Be honest with the disabled during regular workplace evaluations. This is important so they’ll have the chance to improve their performance – and request any new accommodations they may need. They deserve an honest appraisal like everyone else. This will also limit the chances of painful misunderstandings in the future. Be willing to give them concrete ideas for how they can improve the quality of their work.
  • Be prepared to shake the hand of a disabled person – even if this means shaking their left hand and not their right one. This is a simple gesture that communicates respect and equality. You don’t need to shake the person’s hand for an extended time period.
  • Always introduce yourself when speaking with someone who is sight impaired. Be sure to also identify everyone else who is present during the conversation.
  • Never pat anyone who is very short (or in a wheelchair) on the head or shoulder. This makes all adults – and even older teens – feel a bit demeaned. We all have a right to have our “personal body space” fully respected by others.
  • Should you decide to offer a disabled person your assistance – wait briefly to find out if they would like to accept it. For example, it’s possible you may want to help someone transfer from a wheelchair or walker to a nearby chair. However, be aware that many disabled people want to move about on their own as much as possible, to maintain their sense of independence.
  • Be sure you’re addressing the disabled person in the same manner as everyone else present. Far too often, well-meaning bosses or employers may refer to the new department head who’s disabled as “Johnny” – while calling everyone else in the room by his or her last name. Be consistent with how you refer to all who are present.
  • Don’t lean on, move, or play with a disabled person’s crutches, wheelchair or walker. You may think you’re just being lighthearted – but when you do this, you’re calling attention to the person’s disability when that person may simply want to blend in with everyone else. However, if you believe it’s a safety hazard to leave a wheelchair or other assistive device where the disabled person left it, always politely ask that person if you can move it to a different location to make it easier for everyone to walk in that area. Also, be sure to tell the disabled person that you’ll personally retrieve the device when the meeting or seminar is about to end. Finally, never lean on someone’s wheelchair for support – that often makes disabled people feel like you’re violating their personal body space – and that can make them feel very uncomfortable.
  • Be very respectful when listening to a disabled person talk who has a speech impediment. Never assume you’re helping them by suddenly announcing a “translation” or “clarification” of what was just said. Instead, if you think you and others were left a bit confused by what was stated, calmly wait until the person finishes talking and say something like, “So, if I understood you correctly, you’re asking or suggesting that we start handling this account differently in this manner” – repeating what you think you heard. If you misunderstood what was said, then give the person a chance to repeat what they said earlier – or allow them to present it to you in a different way.
  • If someone you need to speak with is in a wheelchair, respectfully pull up a chair so you can speak with that individual at eye level. This conveys both respect and equality.
  • Never assume that all hearing-impaired people can read lips. Should you need to gain the attention of a hearing-impaired person who is looking off in a different direction, very lightly tap the person on his/her shoulder to gain their attention (assuming you’re not interrupting another conversation). If you’re certain someone can lip read – stop eating, drinking or smoking – so it will be easier for that person to follow what you’re saying.
  • Try to interact naturally with the disabled. Should you accidentally say something like “Did you hear that there’s an extra meeting next week?” – only to realize you said that to someone who is hearing impaired, forgive yourself. You can then point to a flyer about the meeting or write the information down on a piece of paper and hand it to the disabled person.

Always remember to stay calm and polite, even if you’re finding it hard to communicate with the disabled worker – and realize that the situation may be far more frustrating for that individual. If you’ll be speaking with one or more disabled people during a meeting, try to let them know, in advance (through a medium they can easily access like email), that you’ll be supplying everyone with a complete summary of the meeting’s highlights in a follow-up email.

If one or more workers are sight-impaired and read Braille, let them know that you’ll get a copy of the meeting notes to them in that format (if you have that capability) within one to two business days. Also, tell them that you’ll be happy to answer any questions they may have prior to their receiving their copy of that summary. Finally, whenever possible, use such terms as “hearing impaired” instead of deaf – and “sight impaired” in the place of blind.

Please feel free to get in touch with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can provide you with any guidance you may need when relating to your disabled employees. We’re also available to provide you with legal advice concerning many other general business, estate planning or employment law topics. And we can draft a wide variety of legal documents on your behalf or help you revise an outdated employee handbook.