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Got a colleague with a disability? 5 tips to avoid acting like an idiot


Just completed the Inca Trail. Not bad for a nearly-blind girl.

Throughout your working life, you’ll come into contact with many types of people. It’s likely that you’ll end up working alongside people with different skills, worldviews, aptitudes … and people that have various disabilities. Whether a person has a sensory, cognitive or mobility impairment, they are still able to come to work every day and do an amazing job, and as a colleague you need to learn to understand and work alongside them.

I have a vision-impairment called achromatopsia. I am considered legally blind. Because of this, I have several adaptations that I use to get my work done (such as a large screen laptop set to high contrast, and a sit-to-stand desk). It doesn’t matter how I get my work done, as long as it gets done and at the end of the day I can feel satisfied that I did my best.

Do you employ any people in your company that have a disability? Are you about to employ someone but are unsure about how they will adapt in your work environment? Well, I’m hoping this article might assuage some of your fears. Here are some things to keep in mind when you work alongside someone who has a disability:

1. Break Through Your Own Barriers

Do you feel uncomfortable working with someone who has a disability? Probably you do, otherwise you wouldn’t have clicked on this article. Think about why this might be so. Don’t worry, it doesn’t make you a bad person. For most people, this uncomfortable feeling comes from one of two places:

  1. You are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and offending this person who has clearly already had to deal with a lot.
  2. You know how much you personally would struggle if you had to deal with a disability, and so you are feeling sorry for the person.

In both cases you’re making assumptions about your new colleague before you’ve even had a chance to meet them. The truth is that most people with disabilities understand that you don’t know what to say. I would rather you say “the wrong thing” than stare awkwardly at your shoes and shuffle away. And also, there’s no need to feel sorry for me - trust me when I say I don’t waste any time feeling sorry for myself, and you shouldn’t, either!

Instead of shying away out of fear of getting it wrong, treat your new colleague/worker like you would any other - go up to them on the first day with a friendly smile and offer to show them around the office or take them out for coffee. Open communication is key to any successful office relationship - speak directly with the person, not their interpreter, partner or friend. Always use your normal voice. You don’t need to speak louder or more slowly. I understand you just fine.

Above all, remember that I am a normal person. I have hobbies, watch TV, listen to music, and have opinions on the news, just like everyone else. If you feel uncomfortable, start by talking about something we have in common. I bet after ten minutes of discussing the latest reality TV shows, you will have forgotten all about my disability!

2. Be aware of language

You’ll notice throughout this article I have said “person/people with a disability”. This is the common standard for talking about physical, sensory or cognitive impairments. Why? Because it puts the person ahead of the disability (as opposed to “a disabled person”, that talks about the disability first).

Language is very important, and it can be hard to know how to talk around a person with a disability. For example, is it OK to talk about hearing or seeing around someone who can’t do either? How do I describe a person’s disability to someone else? How do I know when they need help?

The best thing to do when interacting with a person is to just ask what terminology they prefer. Everyone is different - some people have specific terminology they prefer, whereas others don’t care. For example, I have a friend who has exactly the same eye condition as me: We both detest “handicap” as a term, but I use “disability” and he chooses “eye condition” or “vision impairment”. Terms can also vary from region to region (in Europe, ‘handicapped’ is an accepted term, whereas in the US and here in NZ, it isn’t).

Avoid terms that lend a demeaning or overly-emotional air, for example: “wheelchair-bound, restricted to a wheelchair, victim of, suffers from, deformed, retarded, handicapped, crippled, “challenged.” I don’t like language to imply that I’m suffering from anything or am any way not a “whole” person because of my disability - I am actually doing just fine, thank you!

Some people are happy to talk about themselves and educate about their condition, but others will not talk at all. I am always happy to talk, but I really appreciate it when people ask me, “Is it OK if I ask you about your eyesight? I’m really interested in what you can and can’t see.” Don’t be afraid about using normal language - such as “see” and “look” around a person who is blind.

3. Accessibility and Accommodations

Human beings are incredibly adaptable, and can excel at practically any task if we put our minds to it. Recently, I hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and on the trek I met a paraplegic trekking the same path. Our guide had an arm amputated. We all used specialised equipment to enable us to make the journey, and the same is true of any workplace.

When your new employee starts work, be open and approachable. Ask them what they will need to make performing their job easier. It might be something simple. Most adaptations involve:

  • providing new desks or chairs that allow for certain adjustments. (For example, enabling a wheelchair to fit into a workstation).
  • Removal of objects in the work environment that may hinder work (for example, fans and humming lights may prevent a person with a hearing disability from making out a conversation.)
  • Providing meeting minutes / notes in an electronic format prior to the meeting (for example, a person who is blind can load an electronic file onto a BrailleNote).
  • Moving workstations and equipment into more accessible spaces (moving closer to a doorway so someone with chronic fatigue doesn’t have to walk so far).

Your company should have a budget for workplace adaptations, and, if not, there are also funding sources available in the community.

4. Make Work Social Events Inclusive

Work-related social events are a really important part of building a successful team. Make sure that co-workers with disabilities are included in these events, and that the events are accessible for everyone.

For example, make sure the pub you go to for afterwork drinks is wheelchair accessible, and that a colleague with a hearing impairment will be able to participate in conversation. Maybe you need to rethink your company bowling party as a person with a severe vision impairment may not be able to participate. (Not me though - I love making a fool of myself while bowling!)

The important thing isn’t what you do at work social events - it’s that everyone feels comfortable and included and you get to know each other better.

5. Institute Disability Awareness Training

If you’re reading this article and feeling rather overwhelmed, or think that your team could do with some more extensive training in this area, then you could consider some disability awareness training in your company.

Disability Awareness Training is a great way for your team to learn how better to interact with people of all types of disabilities. It’s also great professional development for anyone dealing with client-side. Most local disability advocacy groups will run some sort of awareness training - sometimes specific to certain disabilities, sometimes more general.

Personally, I think it’s cool to work in an office that celebrates diversity - we have many people of different cultural and social backgrounds, and many with different disabilities. What makes a team great isn’t that everyone is the same - it’s that everyone can take advantage of their strengths to bring their own unique talents and experiences to serve the good of the company.

How diverse is your workforce?