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Empowered through groups like the National Association of Law Students With Disabilities, more and more people with disabilities are entering the legal profession. People with disabilities are a wonderful addition to workplace diversity, but many people without disabilities can initially be unsure of how to approach someone they see as visibly “different.”
Hopefully by working together, this aura of “difference” will quickly dispel, but the following are some basic suggestions for how to start off on the right foot. Certain faux pas may seem obvious, yet they come up frequently, even among the most well-educated, well-intentioned people.
Our society puts a lot of emphasis on labels and picking the “right” one can be a concern. Generally the best move is to take your queues from the language people with disabilities use themselves.
Another rule of thumb is that respectful terminology tends to put the person first, as in “person with a disability” rather than “disabled person,” “person with a vision impairment” rather than “blind person.” This is a small verbal way of acknowledging that you see this person primarily as a person, rather than an impairment with a person attached. Too, if someone with a disability is doing the same job you are, clearly they are not completely “disabled,” they just “have a disability.”
But keep perspective about wording worries. As long as you are not intending to be demeaning, even if you use a term that is outdated or has connotations you might be unaware of, you are unlikely to deeply offend. A better word might be suggested, but most people with disabilities in the professional world have learned not to let the really little things bother them.
When In Doubt, Ask….
People without disabilities are sometimes nervous about mentioning another’s disability for fear of offending them. The non-disabled person might be explaining how to do something and then will suddenly trail off because they realize the person with a disability might not be able to do the task the way it is being explained.
If you find yourself in that situation, please just ask. Ask politely, but honestly say, “I am not sure if this will be a problem for you, please tell me if it is and we can address it.” As you get more comfortable working together, you will get a sense of where that person’s individual boundaries are, but trying to guess for yourself is a minefield. Let the expert – the person who has lived these challenges for years – tell you how their unique situation works.
…Just Be Respectful
Ask about what you need to know, but do not let your curiosity strain polite boundaries. The lives of people with disabilities are often fascinating – particularly if you have never looked at the world from that perspective – but if you have lots of questions, Google is a better way to investigate than pumping your co-worker for intimate details.
Respect extends to compliments as well. Often people without disabilities have impulses to express how “inspiring” they find the accomplishments of people with disabilities. But if the accomplishment you are praising is just showing up to work as the person they are, it may not really be much of a compliment. Take a moment to consider if your expectations might be set too low for someone who is, after all, an accomplished professional like yourself.
All of the above are small things, but it is the small marks of courtesy and respect that define successful professional relationships.
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About the Author
Anna Scholin, President of the National Association of Law Students With Disabilities http://www.nalswd.org/