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Acceptable Affirmative Phrases… For Discussing Disabilities

by Steve Bruce

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to communicate with or assist co-workers with disabilities.  Over-eager assistants do more harm than good, while others, concerned that they will say the wrong thing, say nothing – further isolating people with disabilities.

Using affirmative language is the first step in communicating well with people with disabilities, says DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Their examples:

Affirmative Phrases                               Negative Phrases

Person with an intellectual,                        retarded; mentally defective

cognitive, developmental disability

Person who is blind;                                  the blind

Person who is visually impaired

Person with a disability                              the disabled; handicapped

Person who is deaf                                   the deaf; deaf and dumb

Person who is hard of hearing                    suffers a hearing loss

Person who has multiple sclerosis                efflicted by MS

Person with epilepsy;                                epileptic

Person with a seizure disorder                

Person who uses a wheelchair                   confined or restricted to a wheelchair

Person with a physical disability;                 crippled; lame; deformed

Physically disabled

Person unable to speak;                            dumb; mute

uses synthetic speech

Person with psychiatric disability                 crazy; nuts

Person who is successful, productive          has overcome his/her disability; is courageous

                                                            (when it implies the person has courage

                                                            because of having a disability)

ODEP offers the following advice for communicating with people with disabilities:

General Tips

  • When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer to shake hands.  People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands.  (Shaking hands with the left hand is an acceptable greeting.)
  • If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted.  Then listen to or ask for instructions.
  • Relax.  Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use common expressions such as “See you later,” or “Did you hear about that?” that seem to relate to a person’s disability.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you’re unsure of what to do.

Communicating with Individuals Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

  • Speak to the individual when you approach him or her.
  • When conversing in a group, remember to identify yourself and the person to whom you are speaking.
  • Tell the individual when you are leaving.
  • Do not attempt to lead the individual without first asking; allow the person to hold your arm and control her or his own movements.
  • Never touch or distract a service dog without first asking the owner.
  • Be descriptive when giving directions; verbally give the person information that is visually obvious to individuals who can see.  For example, if you are approaching steps, mention how many steps.
  • If you are offering a seat, gently place the individual’s hand on the back or arm of the chair so that the person can locate the seat.

Communicating with Individuals Who Are Deaf or Hearing Impaired

  • Gain the person’s attention before starting a conversation (i.e., tap the person gently on the shoulder or arm).
  • Look directly at the individual, face the light, speak clearly, in a normal tone of voice, and keep your hands away from your face.  Use short, simple sentences.  Avoid smoking or chewing gum.

Communicating with Individuals with Mobility Impairments

  • If possible, put yourself at the wheelchair user’s eye level.
  • Do not lean on a wheelchair or any other assistive device.
  • Never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.
  • Do not assume the individual wants to be pushed…ask first.

Communicating with Individuals with Speech Impairments

  • If you do not understand something the individual says, do not pretend that you do.  Ask the individual to repeat what he or she said and then repeat it back.
  • Try to ask questions that require only short answers or a nod of the head.
  • Do not speak for the individual or attempt to finish her or his sentences.
  • If you are having difficulty understanding the individual, consider writing as an alternative means of communicating, but first ask the individual if this is acceptable.

Dealing with disabilities – one of a dozen things for which your over-committed managers and supervisors may not be fully trained.  When everyone is working extra hard, it’s all too easy for things to fall through the cracks.  So how do you figure out whether supervisors and managers are handling things the right way…the no-lawsuit way?

Our editors recommend the “simple solution”… an HR audit.  It’s the only surefire way to identify problems early and correct them before they turn into expensive lawsuits.

Experts recommend an annual audit, but maybe next week would be better?  In either case, to do a good audit, you need audit checklists.

Why Checklists?

Why are checklists so great?  Because they’re completely impersonal, and they force you to jump through all the necessary hoops, one by one.  They also ensure consistency in how operations are conducted.  And that’s vital in HR, where it’s all too easy to land in court if you discriminate in how you treat one employee over another.

HR Audit Checklists compels thoroughness.  For example, it contains checklists on both Pre-employment Inquiries:  What You Can and Can’t Ask, and on Preventing Discrimination Against Individuals with Disabilities.  You’d likely never think of all those possible trouble areas without a checklist, but with it, just scan down the list and instantly see where you might get tripped up.

  • Staffing and training (incorporating Equal Employment Opportunity in recruiting and hiring, including immigration issues)
  • HR administration (including communications, handbook content, and recordkeeping)
  • Health and safety (including OSHA responsibilities)
  • Benefits and leave (including health cost containment, COBRA, FMLA, workers’ compensation, and several areas of leave)
  • Compensation (payroll and the Fair Labor Standards Act)
  • Performance and termination (appraisals, discipline, and termination)
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