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Disability Etiquette in the Workplace

For Students with Disabilities

After only 30 seconds of meeting someone, a long-lasting impression is created. Practicing appropriate etiquette and behavior will reinforce your value in the workplace.

Professional Guidelines

DO:

  • Maintain eye contact, speak clearly, and shake hands or verbally greet the employer.
  • Focus on abilities: emphasize what you can do, rather than what you cannot do.
  • Educate others about what you are able to do and what accommodations are the most effective.
  • Self-advocate for your needs.
  • Perform at your highest level. Employers should expect the same level of performance from you as another employee.
  • Realize that the more comfortable you are discussing your disability, the more comfortable your employer and coworkers will be.

DO NOT:

  • Assume that an employer knows what you need to best perform your duties.

Disclosing Your Disability

DO:

  • Introduce yourself, your disability and how you will perform the job.  Explain this to the employer, as they may have no experience supervising or interviewing people with disabilities.
  • Give the employer permission to ask questions about your disability as it relates to the job (Your medical history is confidential under the HIPAA Privacy Rule).

Disability-Specific Considerations

Speech

DO:

  • Speak as clearly as possible
  • Practice clear articulation.  
  • Take your time speaking.
  • Give the other person permission to ask you to repeat what you've said.
  • Repeat words until your employer understands.
  • Use written words or communication device if necessary.
  • Work in a quiet environment.

Individuals Using a Wheelchair

DO:

  • Make sure your chair is clean.
  • Call an employment site in advance to make sure the environment is accessible. If it is not accessible, state the accommodations that may be needed.

DO NOT:

  • Carry multiple bags or coats on your chair.
  • Place stickers on your chair. If you must use tape, get black duct tape.

Hearing/Vision Impairment

DO:

  • Communicate with employers in advance about the accommodations you need in the workplace .
  • Inform employers if you need them to speak louder or quieter.

Workplace Etiquette

DO:

  • Dress appropriately.
  • Keep personal conversations to a minimum.
  • Remain punctual. Give yourself plenty of time to arrive to work and get settled.
  • Be mindful of break length.
  • Keep your work area tidy.
  • Be careful with spelling, grammar, content, and humor in an email.
  • Respect others’ privacy and ownership (knock before entering another’s office, not barging in another’s cubicle, etc.)
  • Speak quietly in a work setting to avoid distracting others.
  • Use polite and courteous language; absolutely no profanity

DO NOT:

  • Gossip in the work place. Ask yourself, “Would I mind if what I am saying is posted on a billboard?” If not, do not say it at work.
  • Use cell phone or other electronics, unless it is work-related.
  • Eat food with strong odors at your desk.

For Employers

This section offers tips on interacting with individuals who have disabilities and making a long-lasting, positive, professional impression.

Etiquette Basics

DO:

  • Use person-first language.
    • Instead of “Bob is autistic” or “Marty is wheelchair-bound,” say “Bob has autism” or “Marty uses a wheelchair.”
  • Speak directly to the person, rather than through an interpreter or friend.
  • Make eye contact with the person, regardless of the disability.
  • Ask before you help; the person will request assistance when needed.  
  • Treat people with disabilities just as you would anyone else.
  • Focus on abilities; what a person can do rather than what a person cannot do.
  • Respect the person’s independence; allow them to do what they are able to do. This includes making decisions.
  • Respect the person’s privacy. Some individuals may not be comfortable disclosing their disability.

DO NOT:

  • Assume the person’s needs or abilities.
  • Stereotype individuals in light of their disability. A disability does not define a person.
  • Refer to the person as “special needs,” “handicapped,” “suffering,” or “a hero.”

Ability-Specific Tips

Speech & Cognitive

The majority of individuals do not have a cognitive disorder, but rather a delay in processing speech

DO:

  • Listen patiently.
  • Use clear language and speak slowly.
  • Give extra time to process information.
  • Work in a quiet environment where it is easier to hear.
  • Ask the person to repeat what they said, slower, louder, etc., if needed.
  • Ask the person to write or type what they said if speech is not intelligible.

DO NOT:

  • Finish the person’s sentences.
  • Rush the person.
  • Pretend to understand something.

Individuals Using a Wheelchair

DO:

  • Respect personal property.
  • Speak at eye level with the person.
  • Remain aware of their reaching limit.
  • Keep commonly used paths clear of obstruction (trash cans, chairs, boxes).

DO NOT:

  • Lean on wheelchairs, hang items on chairs, or push chairs unless asked.

Hearing Impairment

DO:

  • Use eye contact.
  • Speak to the person, not to their interpreter.
  • Speak in a normal tone, unless asked to do otherwise.
  • Get their attention by tapping them on the shoulder, flashing the lights, or waving your hands.
  • Individuals with hearing impairment may use a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD). When communicating, say “Go ahead” to signal to the other person that they may begin speaking.

Vision Impairment

DO:

  • Introduce yourself and others who are present. Identify your role (“I am a recruiter”).
  • Notify the person if you are walking to another area or ending the conversation.
  • Offer the person your arm when walking.
  • Give clear and concise directions.
  • Always ask to pet someone’s service animal. Service animals are not just pets, but a working assistant.

DO NOT:

  • Grab someone’s arm; it may result in a loss of balance.
  • Make noises at the service animal.

Prepare the Workplace

  • Prepare ahead for accessibility. Print accessible handouts or arrange furniture to make the area accessible.
  • Expect the same performance of individuals with disabilities. Practice equal treatment.
  • A “one size fits all” approach is not effective when working with individuals who have disabilities. Communicate with your employees to best accommodate their needs.

Other Considerations

  • If an individual is unable to shake hands, it is appropriate to shake their left hand or greet the individual verbally, such as “Nice to meet you.”
  • Be considerate if you have a communicable condition; individuals with autoimmune or respiratory conditions may have lowered immune responses and a simple illness may have serious consequences. Always cover coughs and sneezes, and keep an appropriate distance when ill.
  • Mental illness is classified as a disability and should not be referred to as “crazy.” Individuals who have mental illness may need low stress environments and specified modifications. 

Service Animals

Service Animal Guidelines, courtesy of The Guide Dog Foundation and America's VetDogs.

Etiquette for Guide and Service Dogs (PDF)

Guide dogs are the guiding eyes for people who are blind or visually impaired.  Service dogs are assistance dogs for people with disabilities other than blindness.  These dogs are specially bred and trained for this most important job.  There are several guidelines people should follow when in the presence of a guide or service dog to allow for the safety of the dog and its handler.  Disregarding these guidelines can distract the dog, which can create a dangerous situation for the dog and its handler.

It’s also important to know, that under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities are allowed to be accompanied by their guide and service dog in all places the public is permitted. 

  • Please don't touch, talk, feed or otherwise distract the dog while he is wearing his harness or vest.  You should allow the dog to concentrate and perform for the safety of his handler.
  • Don't treat the dog as a pet; give him the respect of a working dog.
  • Speak to the handler, not the dog. Some handlers will allow petting, but be sure to ask before doing so.  If allowed, don't pat the dog on the head, stroke the dog on the shoulder area.
  • You should not give the dog commands; allow the handler to do so.
  • Guide and service dog teams have the right of way.
  • Don't try to take control in situations unfamiliar to the dog or handler, but please assist the handler upon their request.
  • When walking with a guide or service dog team, you should not walk on the dog's left side, as it may become distracted or confused.  Ask the handler where you should walk. Depending on the situation, they may ask you to walk ahead of them on their right side, or behind them by their right shoulder.
  • Never attempt to grab or steer the person while the dog is guiding or attempt to hold the dog's harness. You should ask if the handler needs your assistance and, if so, offer your left arm.
  • Try not to be over-protective or overbearing when the graduate first arrives home with the new dog. Be thoughtful, patient, and try to inspire confidence in the handler. In time, you will admire the expertise of the team.
  • Don't expect too much too soon, remember, the dog is young and that complete harmony and confidence takes patience, perseverance, and time.
  • Never give the dog table scraps. You should respect the handler's need to give the dog a balanced diet, and to maintain its good habits.
  • Don't allow anyone to tease or abuse the dog, allow it to rest undisturbed.
  • Make sure not to allow your pets to challenge or intimidate a guide dog. You should allow them to meet on neutral ground when all parties can be carefully supervised.
  • A guide and service dog should not jump on furniture or go in areas of a home not mutually agreed upon by the family or handler. You can ask the handler to correct any errant behavior or trespassing.
  • Never let the dog out of the house unsupervised, and be sure that all doors and/or gates are closed to prevent the dog from exiting your property. 

For more information on our programs:
Guide Dog Foundation
www.GuideDog.org
800-548-4337

America’s VetDogs
www.VetDogs.org
866-838-3647