Unawareness of how to appropriately interact with people
with disabilities is the largest barrier to the successful
employment of people with disabilities.
I said, Come walk down the hall with me! That is what one person
recounted during a disabilities awareness training program where
participants shared their experiences interacting with people with
disabilities at work. She was horrified that she could have said
something so insensitive to her co-worker, who uses a wheelchair.
She hasnt talked to him since.
Was what she said so bad? What should she have said? How do we
avoid saying the wrong thing around people with disabilities? Those
are all questions that workers often dont think about until they
encounter someone with a disabilityand when they do, they are often
too afraid to ask.
Whats the problem?
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people with disabilities are
the largest minority in the United States. Although estimates vary,
there are 19.8 million working-age (21-64) Americans with
disabilities, with numbers continuing to grow as more military
troops with disabilities return from Iraq and Afghanistan. More
than 62 percent of these individuals are unemployed. The National
Organization on Disability reports that the majority of unemployed
citizens with disabilities would prefer to work, and the vast
majority of them do not require any type of mobility assistance.
The largest barrier to the successful employment of people with
disabilities is lack of familiarity and understanding. Some people
are unsure about how to appropriately interact with individuals
with disabilities, so they avoid interactionwhich further isolates
and segregates those with disabilities. This, in turn, causes
underemployment and discrimination against people with
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,
disability discrimination claims were up 17 percent last year and
are at their highest rates ever since the commission starting
enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1992.
If costly discrimination lawsuits and the loss of highly effective
workers hasnt caught your attention, how about this: In the United
States, the more than 60 million (one in five) consumers with
disabilities control more than $175 billion in discretionary
incomeand they are more likely to do business with organizations
that are sensitive to their needs.
Whats the answer?
One of the best ways to increase understanding, familiarity, and
acceptance is through disabilities awareness training, which offers
participants the opportunity to experience disabilities and ask
questions in a safe, judgment-free environment.
In a consumer-driven service economy, organizations cannot afford
to overlook the needs of people with disabilities. Ordering in a
restaurant, banking, making purchases in retail stores, and many
other customer service activities can be difficult and frustrating
for both the consumer and the employee when disabilities are
involved. They do not have to be. Disabilities awareness training
offers a simple approach and easy-to-use tips that will help
employees to reduce their apprehension and enhance communication
when interacting with a person who has a disability.
Disabilities awareness training typically uses videos, speakers,
discussions, and hands-on activities specifically designed to give
each participant a deeper appreciation of the issues and obstacles
faced by people living with disabilities every day. When
participants come into the training session, they are often unsure
of who and what they will encounter. Often they are with
co-workers; many times there are workers from a variety of
An opening icebreaker tool can be a comedic video that shows
participants some of the insensitive actions that people nave to
interacting with disabilities might dosuch as leaning on someones
wheelchair or using it as a footstool, talking baby talk to a
little person, entering a blind persons office without verbally
announcing yourself, or talking extremely slowly to someone with
cerebral palsy. In the video, its the side commentary made by the
victims of these insensitive actions that adds the comedic spin. It
also illustrates that when people with disabilities lost their
sight or ability to walk, they certainly didnt lose their sense of
humor. The moral of the video is to not take yourself so seriously
because they dont.
Referring back to the participant who said Come walk down the hall
with mewas what she said so bad? No, because the co-worker using a
wheelchair probably didnt notice. The only thing she did wrong was
to stop talking to her co-workerisolating him for reasons he is
Another way that training increases awareness for participants is
through direct interaction with people with various disabilities.
During the program, they share their personal and professional
experiences, both good and bad. Putting a face to the
discrimination makes it a much more real problem, shares one
participant. Another realizes, having a disability doesnt sound as
bad as I thought; these people lead completely normal lives. The
speakers also share how they go about overcoming their disabilities
and some of the technology and equipment that help make their lives
Disabilities awareness training also offers practical advice to
human resource professionals and other employees in a position to
conduct interviews or make hiring decisions. Staff can learn how to
discuss necessary accommodations, how to ask about essential
functions of the job, and how to assist people needing aid in
filling out applications or navigating the physical office space.
One of the most powerful features of a disabilities awareness
training program is the opportunity for participants to experience
what it is like to have a disability. During the taking a walk in
our shoes part of the program, participants are randomly assigned a
disabilityfrom using a wheelchair or walker, or wearing goggles
that create eye impairments, to the most difficult for people to
adjust to, the inability to speak.
Participants must take on their disability throughout the entire
program. It is amazing to see how, in the span of three hours,
participants become quite deft at adjusting. In the beginning, they
are asked to move to the first station, where those with eye
impairment goggles are often left standing and seeming quite lost.
However, by the end, everyone works together to get the job done
and to move from station to station. One participant commented, Its
not just awareness training; its team building!
Where do I get signed up?
There are many consulting firms and private individuals who offer
disabilities awareness training for a fee, but in these tough
economic times, organizations would be wise to start looking at
not-for-profit organizations and government agencies for aid in
providing awareness training.
One such resource is the Ability Center of Greater Toledo
(866.885.5733; www.abilitycenter.org), which
provides a broad range of services and support to the northwest
Ohio regioninformation and referrals, advocacy, independent living
skills training, peer support, community living options, and
community education training. The center offers disabilities
awareness training for free to organizations, community members,
There also are services provided by government agencies that focus
on disabilities awareness and can assist organizations in getting
referrals for disabilities awareness training providers. For
example, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is a no-cost
consulting service that aids individuals and organizations in the
successful employment of people with disabilities. It offers
guidance on workplace accommodations and disability employment
issues. Contact JAN at 800.526.7234 (TTY 877.781.9403) or visit
In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor offers valuable
information for organizations trying to become more disabilities
friendly. For example, it provides quick and practical tips for
communicating with people with disabilities, which are then more
specifically broken down by type of disability: visual, hearing,
mobility, speech, and cognitive disabilities.
Diversity training for professional organizations is a multibillion
dollar industry; yet, most diversity training programs only touch
on disabilities awareness. Disability awareness training can open
the door to a deeper appreciation of the issues and obstacles faced
by people living with disabilities.