Talking about disability in the workplace
Scope research shows 42% of disabled people experience negative attitudes from management at work. Many people are still uncomfortable talking about disability. And fear seeming patronising or saying the wrong thing.
Because of this, some people avoid talking about disability at work. Or even avoid disabled colleagues altogether.
Start having open and honest conversations
To create a more inclusive culture, you need to end the awkwardness around disability.
Start having honest and open conversations. Create a working space where disabled people feel comfortable sharing information. Your disabled staff may want to talk about their lives and personal challenges. You should have a culture where disabled colleagues can feel comfortable talking about an impairment or condition, when they want to.
But it’s also important to remember that not all disabled people are the same. Some might not feel comfortable talking about a condition or impairment. You should also make clear that you will not allow staff to ask invasive personal questions or make negative comments.
Creating safe spaces for disabled people to talk about their experiences is important. It will help you to understand the barriers your disabled staff experience. You will be able to improve as a business by listening and responding. You’ll be able to support disabled employees to thrive at work.
Make it easy for disabled colleagues to share information
Getting to know your disabled employees is important. Raise awareness about the support available to your disabled employees. Disabled employees should feel able to talk about the barriers they experience.
It should be easy to have a conversation with you about the support they need. This might be a member of staff requesting workplace adjustments. While others might just want to talk about their experience as a disabled person.
Some might not want to talk to managers or colleagues. Make it easy for them to share information with HR or anonymously through a staff survey.
Use inclusive language
Language changes all the time. This means many worry about ‘getting it right’. To make your conversations more inclusive, consider these basic tips to avoid negative language:
- the disabled, people with disabilities, person with a disability
- handicapped, invalid, cripple
- able-bodied, normal
- disabilities, victim, suffers from, confined to a wheelchair
- the blind, the elderly, retarded, mental, the deaf
- disabled people, disabled person, disability issues
- person has [name of condition or impairment]
- wheelchair user, blind, partially sighted, learning difficulty
- accessible toilet
- support worker, work with disabled people
We recommend businesses use the social model of disability. Social model language uses ‘disabled people’ instead of ‘people with disabilities’.
You can learn more about the social model and language in our introduction to disability inclusion workshop.
It’s also important to remember disabled people may speak about disability in different ways. Get to know your colleague and you’ll find out their preference. If you’re unsure, ask how they prefer to talk about their impairment or condition.
Tips for conversations at work
- make sure all staff know about the support available to disabled people in your business
- add disability inclusion training to learning and development. This helps change negative attitudes and build confidence. Include customer-facing teams in this training too
- set up a buddy system. These can be a great way to start conversations in your team
- look at your recruitment process. Is it accessible? Are you attracting disabled candidates?
Encourage and support role models
Raising the profile of disabled staff in your business can start conversations. You can do this by discussing disabled talent and giving disabled staff a platform to speak.
You could also set up a disabled colleague’s network where people can share their experiences. The goal should be to help staff to talk openly and share different ideas.
Tips to encourage role models
- ask disabled colleagues to share their lived experiences. This can help start important conversations
- organise sessions for role models to speak with groups about the barriers they experience
- ask role models to write blog posts about their experiences at work.
- set up a peer group or colleague network for disabled staff. Peer-to-peer support is valuable when it comes to creating supportive spaces
- ask senior employees to mentor disabled staff. An experienced mentor can support their career development
Support line managers
Line managers can create healthy and supportive workplaces when they know how. But it’s important that line managers are confident, skilled, and given the right support. You must give your line managers the ability to act when disabled staff talk to them about their needs.
Tips to support line managers
- give line managers access to the resources needed to create an inclusive workplace
- make sure they understand workplace adjustments.
- set up training on disability inclusion
- give them guidance on starting conversations about disability
- help line managers to understand social model and inclusive language
- develop the skills needed to challenge negative comments about disability. Make sure managers know how to deal with any issues or discrimination
It’s important managers feel confident dealing with issues. And that they have the power to challenge inappropriate language or attitudes. For more tips on talking about disability, read our End the Awkward advice.