Office etiquette for interacting with disabled coworkers

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The Americans with Disabilities Act was born in the San Francisco Bay Area. And even though the law has done a lot in the area of public access for the disabled, it has not helped people with disabilities find work. In the United States, 70 percent of working age people with disabilities are unemployed. And of the 30 percent that have jobs, many work for organizations in the disability space. This is why, at most companies, the number of disabled employees is low; making disability etiquette a lesser priority to managers.

Disability scholars point to the lack of training available to hiring supervisors as a major contributor to the high unemployment rate of the disabled. The Fair Education Act of 2011 was passed in California to help bust stereotypes at an earlier age; the bill added disability studies to the public school curriculum. However, at the office, employers provide little to no disability training and leave staff members questioning their behavior around their disabled counterparts. Here are three etiquette tips for interacting with co-workers with disabilities.

Don’t edit your speech
The English language has many idioms that may seem offensive to a person with a disability, yet they are not. Don’t be surprised if a blind colleague tells you they’ll “see you later” or if your cubicle neighbor in a wheelchair asks you to hike with him to grab a cup of Joe. By not editing your speech, you can avoid awkward phrases that might make everyone present uncomfortable.

Don’t jump to help without asking
This is the most important rule to keep in mind. No one likes to be grabbed abruptly by a stranger or have someone they don’t know well touch their personal items. Always ask before offering assistance and don’t assume two people who share the same disability will have the same needs.

The cute pooch
Service dogs are a vibrant part of the disabled community. They can help a diabetic person know when their sugar drops, help deaf people cross the loudest of streets, and aid a blind person with finding a place to sit. As adorable and friendly as they are, they should never be petted without permission. Even though the canine may appear not to be working, only the handler can make the call.

Remember, disabled people before anything else are people. Personality will heavily influence the interactions with co-workers who access the world in a different way.

Belo Cipriani is an award-winning author, former staffing professional, a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind and the Writer-in-Residence at Holy Names University. Learn more at

Belo Cipriani