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Engaged HR is pleased to have Aidan Love share his story in this week’s blog post:

Whether we experience it firsthand or not, there are common stigmas and stereotypes attached to people with disabilities. As an employer, it can be a difficult topic to discuss for multiple reasons. You are afraid to hurt people’s feelings. You don’t want to say the wrong thing in case it may offend someone. You don’t want to make the assumption that someone has a disability and be wrong. So many of us play the game of delicately tip-toeing around the word disability instead of opening a dialogue. This game we play isn’t productive, and often can make matters worse.

Many of us play the game of delicately tip-toeing around the word disability instead of opening a dialogue.Twitter_logo_blue

Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes, they are visible, invisible, unknown and known. Every disability is different and, most importantly, everyone reacts to their own disability in their own way. So as an employer, disabilities are often very difficult to identify and even more difficult to understand. The challenge for employers is twofold: first, identifying who in the workplace has a disability and then understanding and providing what they need to participate productively in the workplace.

Guidelines regarding employer obligations and the duty to accommodate are clear. Guidelines regarding employee obligations during the process of accommodation are clear. What isn’t clear and can’t be googled is how to identify disabilities in the workplace if an employer doesn’t know that an employee is in fact disabled.

Being bound to a wheelchair at the age of 19 put an interesting spin on my life. I was faced with a whole new set of obstacles in addition to the typical challenges that come with young adulthood. To list just a few of the many—time management, what takes an able-bodied person 10 minutes in the morning takes me 15 minutes; the need to always plan ahead, life gets really exciting when you never know what obstacles you may face in a day; and the importance of confidence, people tend to judge you based on your disability until you can prove that you are just as able. While I am comfortable about my disability and happy to discuss it, many are not. When I enter a room, people know I am in a wheelchair, and my disability is apparent, but a lot of people can hide their disabilities. A result of the visibility of my disability is that employers can understand and meet my accommodation needs fairly easily, but meeting the needs of those with hidden disabilities can be a bit more difficult.

So, how can employers accommodate disabilities? Or better yet, how can employers identify a disability in the workplace so that it can be accommodated proactively?

It is one of the simplest solutions that every leader knows, but rarely executes as well as they could: Get to know your employees. Every employee is different and as a result, their needs are different. You can’t understand someone’s needs if you don’t understand who that someone is first. Why wait for someone to go off on disability leave, or worse, to quit, before you think about accommodating their needs?

The action plan:

1. Take that first step and be proactive in addressing the disability. Ask those difficult questions so you can meet employee needs.

2. Build that relationship. Be sensitive, and be consistent with check-ins. Disabilities aren’t always static, so accommodation needs may change.

3. Don’t make assumptions. Remember that every employee is different, so treat employees with disabilities as individuals first and foremost.

4. Don’t delay. We are all busy in our day-to-day work routines and sometimes 15 minutes in a day seems impossible to give up. But the downside to not having these conversations could result in a lot more than 15 minutes down the road.

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