Inclusive interaction: addressing awkwardness around disability

Jay: Inclusivity can become a vital component of your brand

The manner in which we interact and communicate in the workplace affects everything. It changes relationships, morale, productivity, management, and wellbeing.

It impacts performance, teamwork, engagement, and collaboration. It is also the cornerstone of customer relations and client connections. In short, good communication is a fundamental requirement for any business to thrive.

Now, if you were to learn that a good proportion of your workforce has difficulty communicating with 24% of the population, would you have concerns?

Unfortunately, this could well be the case for many businesses, as a survey by Scope revealed that 67% of the UK’s population admits to feeling awkward around people with disabilities.

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As well as influencing teamwork, this issue could be impacting how well your employees communicate with important clients and valued customers and frankly, anyone else they converse with.

The truth is, we can make every adjustment to be a more inclusive workplace, but without our staff having the right mindset, those changes could have been made in vain.

Take, for example, an experience I recently had. I was scheduled to deliver a keynote speech at a conference event, and as a wheelchair user, I approached the busy entrance with my colleague, looking for a way to get to the second floor.

The venue had a procedure whereby they escorted and assisted people with wheelchairs to an accessible lift.

They had clearly made an effort to make the event accessible for all. However, as soon as the receptionist saw someone in a wheelchair, he pointed and shouted, ‘Wait there!’ He then asked my colleague where I was going, (instead of addressing me) and scrambled around to find his walkie talkie to summon the person responsible for escorting me to the lift.

I felt more like a dangerous package than a person, which could have easily influenced how I perceived the event.

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Unfortunately, the organisers had created an accessible strategy, but completely forgot to train the person managing it.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that this gentleman, (and the 67% of people that report feeling awkward) are not reacting with animosity or ill-feeling.

In most cases this awkwardness is built around a lack of experience or knowledge of communicating with people with a disability. In actual fact, for a vast majority of these people, they will be afraid they will offend by saying the wrong thing or using the wrong language.

The important thing to remember is that this scenario could have been easily avoided, as can all other awkward interactions in similar situations and environments. It just requires people to have a stronger sense of disability awareness. 

Gaining awareness: alleviating the awkward

The first step towards changing your staff’s understanding of disability is to undertake sessions of disability awareness training, preferably with a user-led facilitator (meaning the trainer has lived experience of disability themselves).

This will empower your workforce with a greater sense of empathy, knowledge and understanding around disability.

It will encourage them to understand the needs of other people – whether that’s colleagues, clients or customers.

It will provide an opportunity to learn how to approach people, what language to use, how to communicate properly, all while gaining a better understanding of what disability really is.

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This will generate incredibly positive results, and not only improve how staff communicate with others, but also, encourage employees with non-visible disabilities (who may not have disclosed due to concerns about how their colleagues’ might react) to be more open about theirs.

Looking into the future, inclusivity can become a vital component of your brand, attracting a customer base with the annual spend of £274 billion per year. Simply by making a few simple changes to the way staff perceive disability, your business will certainly reap many rewards.  

Chris Jay is managing director of Bascule Disability Training