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Disabilities & the Workplace: How to Be a Kind Coworker

You don’t have to be able to see a person’s suffering to believe it’s real.

In October, we take time to recognize our coworkers who have conditions we might know little about but that affect them every day at work.

“Invisible” disabilities

Conditions that may be affecting the people around you include:

  • Autism
  • Brain injury
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (extreme fatigue that can’t be explained by any underlying medical condition)
  • Chronic pain
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Cystic Fibrosis (a progressive disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Learning disabilities such as ADHD or dyslexia
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy (nerve cell activity causes seizures)
  • Fibromyalgia (widespread muscle and tissue pain accompanied by problems with energy, sleep, memory and mood)
  • Lupus (inflammatory disease that causes the immune system to attack its own tissues)
  • Lyme Disease (tick-borne illness that causes fever, headache, fatigue and rash)
  • Mental health issues (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, etc.)
  • Multiple sclerosis

The employment rate of people 21-64 with disabilities in Tennessee is 30% [2013] 

Perception matters

Some of the biggest challenges people with disabilities face in the workplace is how they’re seen by their coworkers or managers. Many choose not to disclose their conditions out of a fear for how they’ll be perceived. People in these situations don’t want to be pitied or seen as incapable of doing what is asked of them, but rather as individuals who happen to have a condition but can still perform tasks as well as their coworkers.

Communication and gestures

One simple thing you can do to be a kinder coworker is to consider your language and interactions with the people around you.

  • Don’t point out or ask about a disability or condition unless someone offers to share that information with you. Conversely, if someone is open in talking about their situation, let them take the lead, then engage in a conversation openly and honestly if you are comfortable doing so.
  • Avoid language with negative connotations when talking about disabilities. Know that a disability or condition is not a “defect.”
  • Rather than providing assistance upfront, always ask before you rush to help. Sometimes a person may not need help even if it appears they do.
  • Instead of talking down to a coworker who may be in a wheelchair, take the time to pull out a chair and speak with them at eye level.

All of these actions rely simply on thinking about how you act and speak. There are always ways to show compassion and support for your coworkers if you take the time to look for them.

Kristine San Mateo

Kristine San Mateo is a writer who brings stories to life for wellness brands as well as sports teams, coffee, tourism and the automotive industry across the world. She currently resides in Nashville, TN.

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