The term disability is a broad one, encompassing a range of things from mild to severe, intellectual to physical. Some disabilities are obvious, while others may not necessarily be apparent. According to the U.S. Census bureau, there are nearly 12 million people with disabilities in the workforce. So, whether one is aware or not, the chances are good that he or she has, or will, encounter a person with a disability on the job. With that in mind, it is important to understand that certain statements or questions, regardless of the intention behind them, are universally perceived as offensive to those with disabilities.
Humans are curious creatures, by nature, and it is understandable that one might be interested in knowing the background of a person’s disability. Asking “what happened?” or “Were you born this way?”, which may seem like nothing more than a conversation starter to the one asking, is never appropriate upon first meeting. It is purely the right of people to maintain the level of privacy they are comfortable with, and to share, or not, on their own terms. Putting them on the spot is invasive and offensive.
“I forget you’re disabled”
Generally speaking, this statement is made with the best of intentions. Likely, the person saying it is trying to communicate that he or she values their disabled coworker as a person. However, Within the disabled community, there is debate as to whether this is a positive statement or not, tied to the varying ways persons with disabilities identify with their own disability. Since it is controversial, it’s best simply to avoid saying it.
“How do you…?”
There’s no doubt that for a person with a disability, accomplishing many of the everyday tasks the rest of the population takes for granted, involves challenges and accommodations. It is understandable that there is a level of curiosity around how he or she is able to do things. Asking overly personal questions (e.g., “How do you use the bathroom?”) is simply rude and intrusive.
There is an expected protocol for one’s behavior within a professional setting. The above questions and statements are never acceptable to broach in the context of the workplace. Of course, should a professional relationship evolve into a personal one, with a greater level of shared intimacy, the subjects mentioned might not remain taboo forever. But, as a general rule, they are best to avoid in the workplace.