Managing Disability – Some tips

First appeared in ‘M.I.S.’ (U.K.)

There’s a fair amount of anxiety amongst managers when dealing with disabled people. There’s the whole language issue for a start. Is it disability, people with disabilities, handicapped, the disabled, the ably-challenged? What the hell’s the correct term to use today?

For me it’s about awareness and breaking old patterns of behaving and ways of thinking. You need to give it some thought. However remember that you may well get it wrong at times. Usually it doesn’t matter what you say as long as your intention is to be helpful. People will forgive you making mistakes as long as your intention isn’t to be malicious or hurtful. So far I’ve never come across a case where people have taken offence when people have tried to be helpful. I’ve asked blind people to ‘look at the board’, people with speech impediments to ‘speak up’ and of course I’ve felt like an absolute idiot. Yet I’ve never been made to feel bad. Any embarrassment has been generated internally.

It’s more than being p.c. It’s common courtesy and being sensible. If a friend gets married and changes their name you’ll call them their new name. If you forget and refer to their old name it may be embarrassing but that doesn’t make you a bad person.

Looking more closely at some of the implications behind common phrases may help. The term handicapped for instance was fairly recently widely used. However this term has associations with going ‘cap in hand’ and begging and it’s recommended that people use the term ‘disabled’ instead. I have heard the argument about ‘political correctness gone mad’ and ‘you can’t say anything these days’ but I would just go with the common sense, pragmatic approach; If I wanted you to call me ‘Barney’ because I thought ‘Byron’ was offensive why wouldn’t you? Would you try to argue with me that I was wrong? I hope not.

Other terms that can give the wrong impression are suffering from, victims of … or when a disabled person is talked about as being brave or courageous. I’ve been assured that this isn’t always the case. People with disabilities often aren’t any braver, more courageous or more suffering than anyone else.

It’s become a cliché I know but often it’s about seeing the person rather than the disability. So, labelling people with their disabilities; paraplegics, schizophrenics, the physically disabled is lazy and easy. It doesn’t help in developing a relationship with the person. It’s as bad, but less offensive, to label people as Welsh, or a management consultant. It puts people into a box and attributes them with all the prejudices you have about that particular stereotype.

It seems straightforward enough when you think about it. The real lesson for me is what to do when you’re not sure. If you’re not sure what word to use or not use then ask someone and tell them how you feel. Say “Look I don’t want to cause any offence so what word should I use here.” It’s not difficult, but it does take some thought.

Although managing people with disabilities may seem daunting, managing anybody should seem daunting. People with disabilities want to be managed the same way as anyone else. This doesn’t mean treating everyone the same. People aren’t the same. The most basic example would be building a ramp for wheelchair access alongside a set of steep steps. This is a good thing I hope you’ll agree. Yet if you were to treat everyone the same you wouldn’t build the ramp. It’s a spurious argument I’ve frequently heard with managers – “But I treat everyone the same”. Whilst their staff are all saying, “But we’re not.”

Everyone is different. People have different talents and it’s for managers to bring those talents out. The difference for me is illustrated in an example from football mangers. A decade or so ago when Jack Charlton managed the Ireland team he had a great defender Paul McGrath who had a severe drink problem. He managed this quietly and effectively. At the same time Paul Gascoigne’s similar problem was front page news everywhere and dealt with a good deal less effectively by a number of managers.

In the work situation this doesn’t mean you have to ignore someone’s disability – deal with it. The easiest way of doing this is by talking about it. This raises another problem in managers’ minds. How do you get the balance right between being intrusive and appearing uncaring?

My advice would be to trust your feelings. If you feel there is a problem you should address it. There will be no need to pry or ask personal questions. Have an adult conversation about your concerns and listen to the reply. Don’t ignore the problem and hope it will go away. You know that never happens.

If possible attend a training programme. Hopefully this should achieve a few things for you. Firstly it should help reinforce all the things you are already doing well, and secondly it should help raise your awareness of issues. It will also send out a message that you’re taking the situation seriously.

Some of the lessons I learnt from a course I attended ten years ago have stuck with me. One exercise was particularly traumatic for a number of us on the course. The instructors asked us to choose our disability. This was extremely hard. People were getting very upset imagining this. Eventually we’d all chosen – some were blind, deaf, etc… Then they introduced the second part of the exercise.

“Now, what can’t you do?” we were asked.

Initially there was a great deal of debate about all the things we couldn’t do if we were in a wheelchair, visually impaired, etc., but after a while we started to realise that there weren’t a great many barriers for us. Or at least if there were barriers there were ways around them. Most of these obstacles existed in our heads. OK, so being blind I was unlikely to win the hundred metres Olympic title. But as the trainer, very accurately, pointed out, pushing forty and being not particularly fit would tend to suggest that anyway.

The facilitator gave us an eye-opening example of the stereotyping wheelchair users come across. One day he was sitting in his wheelchair outside Marks and Spencer waiting for his wife and drinking a can of coke. A middle aged woman walked past, looked at him, opened her purse, took out a pound coin and dropped it in his can. “There” she smiled and walked off.

The tip is to address the issue and talk about it. If your member of staff is in a wheelchair and has problems opening a heavy door say, “Excuse me I can see that you’re in a wheelchair struggling to open that heavy door, do you need some help?”

It’s not difficult – is it?

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