By Wynona James
21st Space Wing Special Emphasis Program manager
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — A group of employees were actively working on a project when an emergency alarm went off. As usual, all the workers immediately stopped what they were doing and rushed towards exit doors to evacuate the building.
In doing so, there were also two employees with physical disabilities — one man who could not walk very fast and a woman who was in a wheelchair that also headed towards the doors. As these individuals slowly joined the mass of people, two co-workers immediately rushed to help the disabled workers, one grabbing the arm of the man and the other swiftly whisking the wheelchair bound person outside the door. Although everyone got out of the building safely, there was one problem with this scenario. They assumed the disabled worker needed help without asking.
Despite the good intentions, it is better to offer first than assume they need help. With a growing number of people with disabilities entering the workforce, it is important that the public recognize proper etiquette and courtesies when interacting with the disabled community. Making assumptions and judgments about the disabled are just two of many areas that should not be taken for granted in the workplace. Others include:
• Don’t assume that persons with disabilities do not want to work.
• Don’t assume that alcoholism and drug abuse are not real disabilities, or that recovering drug abusers are not covered by the ADA.
• Don’t ask if a person has a disability during an employment interview.
• Don’t assume that certain jobs are more suited to persons with disabilities.
• Don’t hire a person with a disability who is not qualified to perform the essential functions of the job even with a reasonable accommodation.
• Don’t assume that you have to retain an unqualified employee with a disability.
• Don’t assume that your current management will need special training to learn how to work with people with disabilities.
• Don’t assume that the cost of accident insurance will increase as a result of hiring a person with a disability.
• Don’t assume that the work environment will be unsafe if an employee has a disability.
• Don’t assume that reasonable accommodations are expensive.
• Don’t speculate or try to imagine how you would perform a specific job if you had the applicant’s disability.
• Don’t assume that you don’t have any jobs that a person with a disability can do.
• Don’t assume that your work place is accessible.
• Don’t make medical judgments.
• Don’t assume that a person with a disability can’t do a job due to apparent or non-apparent disabilities
Some good things to keep in mind include:
• Do learn where to find and recruit people with disabilities.
• Do learn how to communicate with people who have disabilities.
• Do ensure that your applications and other company forms do not ask disability-related questions and that they are in formats that are accessible to all persons with disabilities.
• Do consider having written job descriptions that identify the essential functions of each job.
• Do ensure that requirements for medical examinations comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
• Do relax and make the applicant feel comfortable.
• Do provide reasonable accommodations that the qualified applicant will need to compete for the job.
• Do treat an individual with a disability the same way you would treat any applicant or employee — with dignity and respect.
• Do know that among those protected by the ADA are qualified individuals who have AIDS, cancer, who are mentally retarded, traumatically brain-injured, deaf, blind and learning disabled.
• Do understand that access includes not only environmental access but also making forms accessible to people with visual or cognitive disabilities, and making alarms and signals accessible to people with hearing disabilities.
• Do develop procedures for maintaining and protecting confidential medical records.
• Do train supervisors on making reasonable accommodations.
The most important thing to remember is that a disabled person is just that — a person. Their disabling condition(s) are only secondary to what makes them a person. In general, the individuals in the disabled community prefer to be referred to as “people with disabilities” as opposed to “handicapped.”
There are distinctions between disability and handicap. A disability is a condition caused by an accident, trauma, genetics or disease, which may limit a person’s mobility, hearing, vision, speech or mental function. Some people may have one or more disabilities.
A handicap is a physical or attitudinal constraint that is imposed upon a person, regardless of whether that person has a disability. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines handicap as to put at a disadvantage.
During October, we pay tribute to the accomplishments of both men, women and veterans with disabilities whose work helps keep the nation’s economy strong and by reaffirming their commitment to ensure equal opportunity for everyone in America. The effort to educate the public concerning issues related to disability and employment began in 1945 when Congress enacted Public Law 176 which declared the first week of October as “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.” The federal government continues to recognize the contributions of these individuals with the 2010 White House Executive Order 13548 to increase federal employment with individuals with disabilities.