Tool 5 - Working Together: Interacting with People with Disabilities

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The Communication Tools to Support Disability Inclusion Toolkit includes 11 templates to help managers with disability inclusion:

What’s Tool 5 About?

For many people in your workplace, disability inclusiveness might be fairly new. So some people might be worried they'll say or do something disrespectful. This discomfort might even mean that they avoid interacting with co-workers or perspective employees with disabilities. The messages in this tool are designed to break down these barriers of discomfort so individuals with disabilities can be fully included in formal meetings as well as friendly conversations throughout your workplace.

Tips about the Tool 5 template:
  • All messages for this topic revolve around the concept of “people first; disability second.”
  • Your message will be strengthened by including interviews with employees with disabilities in your organization who are willing to come forward for this purpose. Real stories are far more engaging than written points.

You can copy and paste the template text below into a word processor and customize it for your organization. 

Working Together: Interacting with People with Disabilities

Changing how we think about disability

Respectful interactions with people with disabilities are less about a set of rules and more about adopting a new mindset. People with disabilities sometimes feel the attitudes of others are more disabling than their health condition. Too often, we fail to look the beyond disability to see a person‘s skills and talents. Or we hold people with disabilities up as heroes—as objects of inspiration. The problem is, objects can't be really human, and no one should be expected to be a hero all the time. Finally, there's the charity perspective, which casts people with disabilities as incapable of independence or of contributing to society. All of these mindsets stand in the way of fully realizing the talents and skills that people with disabilities can bring to (COMPANY NAME)‘s workplace.

Person first, disability second

Treat individuals with disabilities as people first. Fully include all (COMPANY NAME) employees in all aspects of work life, from company-wide functions, to team meetings, to conversations in the coffee room. If you're unsure whether they need help, just ask. Talk as you would with anyone else. Discuss the weather. Ask them about their vacation. Talk about your latest project. Make a joke. Relax. Person first. Disability second.

The impact of words

Here are ten things to never say to a person with a disability (and what people with disabilities might think when they hear them).

  1. What happened to you? (None of your business!)
  2. You're so brave! (Why should I have to be brave? I am what I am.)
  3. Do you need to rest? (Just because I have a disability doesn't mean that I'm tired.)
  4. You're such a source of inspiration. (I'm just a person. I'm not responsible for inspiring you.)
  5. Confined to a wheelchair. (I'm not confined. My wheelchair is part of who I am. It's only inaccessible environments that are confining, not my wheelchair)
  6. I believe in helping the handicapped. (Well that's nice, but what makes you think I need your help? And please don't use "the handicapped.")
  7. I'm so glad they found a place for you here. (They didn't find a place for me here. I earned it, just like you did.)
  8. I had a friend once who was handicapped. He was great. (I'm not like your friend. Each person with a disability is different. And I don't call myself “handicapped.”)
  9. So sorry you can't attend the meeting. It's upstairs and there isn't an elevator. (Why did you choose that location? My contribution apparently doesn't matter.)
  10. I know just what you're going through. (My experience of disability might be completely different than yours. Let's just talk and find out more about each other, rather than making assumptions.)

Want to learn more?

For more about this topic, visit or call the Northeast ADA Center at 800-949-4232.

If the above text pastes into Microsoft Word with uwanted gray shading, select the text and use the Paint Bucket tool to choose No Color for the fill. Or, when pasting, try choosing Edit > Paste Special > Formatted Text (RTF).


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