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Treating people as people: basic office etiquette calls for common sense and courtesy.

Treating People as People

Has anyone ever treated you in a condescending manner - or ignored you altogether? How did you feel? Disturbed, right? Unfortunately, that's how millions of Americans feel all too often.

Those millions of Americans - individuals with physical or mental disabilities - are people whose contributing potential has been long overlooked. If you ask people with disabilities what they see as the biggest barrier to contributing to their communities, you may be surprised to learn they think it is not physical restraints but people's attitudes toward them. Even though the recent passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) now guarantees protection of their basic civil rights, negative attitudes stand in the way of promising opportunities.

Knowledge promotes change

As a manager, you know how you treat people greatly influences how they feel about you and the organization you represent. So you'll want to be prepared. When you meet with a person with a disability, you can avoid negative behaviors by acquiring and putting into practice some basic information that will make the person feel welcome and comfortable in your office. The first thing to do is examine your knowledge about such people (see sidebar, "Myths and Facts"). Replacing fear with facts eliminates confusion and diffuses situations like one an employer related to me about his first meeting with a prospective employee in a wheelchair.

"I remember vividly the first time I met Chris," he told me. "It scared the hell out of me. I didn't know what to do. What do you do with somebody sitting in a wheelchair? Do you stand up? Do you sit down? Do you ignore the chair? Do you start moving furniture? Whats the etiquette?"

Disability etiquette

In general: * People with disabilities are entitled to the same courtesies you extend to anyone. This includes their personal privacy. If you don't generally ask people about their personal lives, their complexions, or their incomes, then don't ask people with disabilities about theirs. * Treat adults as adults. Call a person by his or her first name only when you're extending the same informality to everyone present. * If you don't make a habit of leaning or hanging onto people you are with, then don't lean or hand on someone's wheelchair. Wheelchairs are an extension of personal space for people who use them. * Someone who is visually or otherwise physically impaired might appreciate assistance navigating through a new space. But ask the person first. If your offer is accepted, allow the person to take your arm. This will help you guide, rather than propel, the person. * When giving directions to a person with a disability, consider distance, weather conditions, and physical obstacles, such as stairs and steep hills. * Use specifics, such as "left a hundred feet" or "right two yards," when directing a person with a vision disability. * Be considerate of the extra time it might take a person with a disability to get things said or done. Let the person with a disability set the pace in walking and talking. * Keep the needs of people with disabilities in mind when planning meetings, special events, or parties. For example, if you are planning lunch for a group that includes a person who uses a wheelchair, make sure the restaurant you select is accessible. If insurmountable barriers exist, make sure these are communicated beforehand to the affected party. In greetings: * It is appropriate to shake hands when introduced to a person with a disability. People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb do shake hands. * When greeting a person with a severe vision disability, always identify yourself and introduce anyone else who might be present. Say, for example, "On my right is Penelope Potts." When offering a handshake, say something like "Shall we shake hands?" In conversation: * When talking to or interviewing someone with a disability, speak directly to that person, rather than through a companion who may be along. * Relax. People with disabilities have senses of humor and perspective. Don't be embarrassed if you happen to use words that seem to relate to a disability. Common conversations include such expressions as "Let's see," "Walk this way," or "I have to run," and people with physical disabilities use those expressions, too. * To get the attention of someone who has a hearing disability, it may be necessary to tap that person on the shoulder or wave your hand. Then look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly, and expressively to establish whether he or she can read your lips. Not all people with hearing impairments can lip-read. Those who do will rely on facial expressions and other body language to help in understanding. (Note: It is estimated that only 3 out of 10 spoken words are visible on the lips.) Show additional consideration by placing yourself facing the light source and keeping your hands and other objects away from your mouth when speaking. Shouting doesn't help and is annoying. You may wish to use written notes. * When offering seating to someone with a vision disability, place the person's hand on the back or arm of the seat. Let him or her know if you need to leave for a moment or end the conversation. * Give your undivided attention when talking with someone who has difficulty speaking. Keep your manner encouraging, rather than correcting, and be patient. Don't speak for the person. Ask short questions that require short answers or a nod of the head when you can. Don't pretend to understand if you do not. Repeat what you understand. The person's reaction will clue you in and guide you to understanding. * When talking more than a few minutes to a person who uses a wheelchair or crutches, always sit down or kneel so that you're both on the same eye level.

Beware the pitfalls

When you employ people with disabilities, beware of putting them on a pedestal. People who have disabilities expect to be treated like other employees and paid at the prevailing wages, based on their job performance. If you praise everything they do, you risk stunting their growth as valuable employees by denying them constructive criticism.

The responsibility for positive interaction between a nondisable person and a person with a disability is two-sided. Generally, someone with a disability will go out of the way to make others comfortable with his or her disability. However, one may occassionally come up against a defensive, hostile, uncommunicative person with a disability. When this happens, you are obligated only to treat the individual with the disability as you would any disagreeable person.

Beyond the etiquette discussed here, apply the same rules on common courtesy used when dealing with anyone.

In these changing times, knowing how to relate to people with disabilities gives you a wonderful opportunity to tap into a vast resource of quality employees, board members, and supporters. As an organization leader, your efforts can also make the acceptance and implementation of the ADA that much quicker.

Sandra Gordon is senior vice president of corporate communications, National Easter Seal Society, Chicago.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Gordon, Sandra
Publication:Association Management
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Previous Article:The deed makes the difference: when people possess the skills you want, accommodating their needs is a smart investment.
Next Article:Privacy in the workplace.

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