What They Don’t Tell You About Managing Disabled Employees

Did the title of this post make you uncomfortable? In a PC world, singling out different types of employees for discussion isn’t always acceptable.

Have no fear. This post isn’t meant to dump on anyone, but I do want to highlight some things I never knew until I managed a disabled employee.

Some people fear a disabled employee will be too much trouble. I’ve also heard the opposite, when some goof said to me, “Oh, they are always so grateful just to have jobs that they make the best employees!”

Neither is true. Like all employees, some are great, some are terrible and most will fall in between. How are they different? Some managers are too afraid to address any performance or behaviour concerns with a disabled employee. Guess what? They aren’t really equal if you don’t treat them like other employees.

I’ve mentioned Charles once before in a post about a silly building management decision. Charles had a physical disability that left him in a wheelchair and with somewhat limited use of his hands.

Charles was already a member of my team when I took over its management. Fortunately he was very open about his disability and always willing to answer questions. I knew he had an attendant that came in once a day around lunchtime, but I didn’t know what other accommodations he might need. My own manager was also great at filling in the blanks, since she’d worked with Charles for a number of years.

In most ways, he was just like any other employee. But I did notice a couple of ways in which managing Charles was different. The first was offsite meetings and team building activities. Management was generally good about trying to remember and accommodate for Charles. But in a department with over 100 people, every once in a while he was forgotten.

Anytime an offsite event was announced, my first question to the organizer was always, “Is X place wheelchair accessible?” Management did forget once and quickly had to arrange an alternate location (after some idiot suggested we just not bring him).  It fell to my boss and me to make sure Charles was always included.  If he needed a new accommodation we often had to push for it. We never expected to become advocates in the workplace, but we somehow ended up in that role anyway.

There were a couple of small work tasks that Charles couldn’t perform. He didn’t have the dexterity for paper clips and he needed a bit of help with the fax machine. This wasn’t a problem and no one minded helping, but it did mean having a conversation with every new employee to the team. I didn’t want anyone to be surprised if he asked them for help. So our team had an extra bit of orientation that no one else got.

One last quirk I noticed about Charles in the workplace was everyone else’s reaction to him. All employees were nice to him, but Charles was extremely chatty. He could lose track of time and talk someone’s ear off.

With anyone else, our employees would nicely say they needed to get back to work or go to a meeting if they were detained too long. But some staff just couldn’t say this to Charles, even if it was true and polite.

Our supervisory staff ended up having to rescue hapless employees from these prolonged conversations. If we didn’t go over to ask them or Charles an unnecessary question, they could spend an entire afternoon listening to Charles regale them with major league baseball stories. We could never cure some employees of this problem no matter what we tried.

To sum up I’d like to tell managers not to be afraid of hiring disabled employees, but you must have the fortitude to treat them like actual employees. You also need to watch for real differences that must be addressed in order to ensure a happy working environment for everyone.

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