I had heard stories about how people who have disabilities often get treated, but I guess I didn’t realize how harsh it can be until I saw it through the eyes of my son.

Workplace Disability

My 21-year-old son was confined to a wheelchair for a while. He had a pretty great attitude about it, and that made it easier for the rest of us. Unfortunately, however, I got to witness how differently people treated him. It was as if he had lost his intelligence, his hearing and even – in a few cases — his state of being just by sitting in a chair.

Store clerks and waiters addressed their questions to me instead of to him. People pushed past and around him in lines as if he wasn’t there. What I have discovered since then is that what happened to Paul is not the exception, but the rule.

There are some definite right and wrong ways to treat someone with a disability and to make sure he or she is comfortable and able to be productive at the workplace. Here are three tips for workplace disability etiquette.

Tips for workplace disability etiquette

Communicate directly with the person

Don’t talk to people with a physical limitation as if they have mental limitations. Realize that person is just as sharp and just as qualified for the job as anyone else.

For some reason, there is a natural inclination to talk more loudly to someone who is in a wheelchair or to someone who is vision-impaired. Be aware of the inclination and don’t do it. Also, avoid standing over a person in a wheelchair whenever possible. Instead try to put yourself at that person’s level.  Do not lean on or touch the wheelchair or any other assistive device, however, as that can be seen as an invasion of personal space.

When speaking with a person with a disability, talk to the person, not to his or her companion. This rule applies whether the person has a mobility, a speech or a cognitive impairment. It even applies if the person has a hearing or sight impairment and uses an interpreter.

Be sensitive.

The goal of anyone in your workplace who has a disability is to function in the job just like anyone else. Your goal should be to get to know the person and to be sensitive of that person’s needs.

Do not underestimate or pre-judge a disabled person’s abilities. Also be careful not to take away someone’s dignity by doing things for him that he can do for himself. As you get to know the co-worker, you will find out ways you can offer any assistance. The key word is to offer, not to assume, and don’t be offended if your offer is declined.

If the co-worker person has a speech impairment, don’t pretend to understand what she is saying when you don’t. Be assured she wants you to understand her. Explain you are having difficulty and ask her to repeat what she has just said. Listen carefully and then use the active listening skill of repeating back what you heard to make sure you understand.

If you are speaking to a blind person, identify yourself at the start of a conversation and announce when you are leaving the room. Don’t worry or do a facepalm when you use a common expression that refers to sight, such as “I see” or “See you later.” No one will be offended by that.

If your co-worker is hearing impaired and you want to get his attention, tap him lightly on the shoulder or arm. Then look directly at the person, and speak in your normal tone of voice in short, simple sentences. Even if your co-worker uses sign language with an interpreter, speak directly to your co-worker, not to his interpreter.

Many people with all kinds of disabilities use service dogs. It is very important that you do not touch or distract a working service animal. You can ask the owner if you can pet the dog when it is off duty.

Relax. Whether you are interviewing someone for a job or just going about day-to-day tasks, focus on the subject at hand and not on a disability. You’ll find that once you get to know your co-worker, his or her disability will become just part of who he or she is not the focus of who he or she is.

Joke around or be serious, but just remember to be yourself. If you have any questions about the person’s impairment and how it came to be part of his or her life, ask. You’ll find that people with disabilities are quite comfortable talking about their situation as long as the questions are asked in a respectful and courteous manner.

For more information, visit the National Organization on Disability’s website at nod.org.  NOD is a non-profit, private organization that works to increase job opportunities for the 79 percent of working age Americans with disabilities who are not employed.