Working with a Disability
By Vanessa Palencia
Work is hard enough of as it is no matter where you work, whether that’s somewhere as prestigious as Google or somewhere more modest like your university’s tutoring center. So when you throw your disability in the mix, it can get a little complicated, especially when the rest of the world (not just your workplace, trust me) is still learning how to approach people with disabilities.
I know that with each disability comes a different situation, solution, and outcome, so while I’ll be providing solutions based on things I’ve encountered with my hearing disability, I will try to make this applicable to you as much as possible and hope that you can translate everything into your own life.
Get Comfortable with Yourself
My first job ever straight out of high school was a local Allstate Agency working as a clerk’s assistant. I was initially supposed to take on the position of clerk, but because I was hard of hearing and couldn’t be reliable on the phone, I was pushed to the back office where I was stuck filing papers. At the time, I was completely fine with this set-up because phones terrified me. I was uncomfortable with my hearing disability, so I didn’t push for anything even remotely challenging because I was safe in the back, away from any human contact. But this situation didn’t allow me to grow. So unless you want to be stuck where you are at, you need to get comfortable with who you are and accept the challenges that will come.
Embrace Being Different
Because I wasn’t comfortable with my disability, I avoided bringing it up whenever people forgot about it. I figured that if they didn’t care enough to remember my disability and help me out in the first place, then they wouldn’t care no matter how many times I reminded them. I remember when I landed a job at Barnes and Noble as a bookseller during my college years I really got the gist of what it felt like to be an outcast. I am very limited when it came to phones, but despite previously telling them that I cannot be held accountable for phones, they were still insistent on me trying. Of course, this led to an immense pressure to pick up the phones as if I was a normal hearing person, so you can imagine how many angry customers I received everytime I picked up the phone. I mean, I already had a difficult time conversing with customers in person, so I have no idea what made them believe that I could master the art of telephone calls as a deaf person. But looking back, I now realize that because I didn’t embrace my disability, I lacked the courage to stand up for myself and was forced to do things I literally couldn’t do.
Inform the Ignorant
You have to remember that your coworkers don’t live with your disability, so they don’t know what you need, but most importantly, they will forget. So you can either keep hiding or you can step up and let your voice be heard. Continually remind them how they should be approaching and communicating with you and you’ll get what you need consistently.
Announce Your Disability to Everyone You Work With
I still have a hard time with this. It might be because I wouldn’t divulge my personal information to someone I’ve just met, so it doesn’t make sense why I would start off a conversation talking about my disability. It seems really random. But this is a mindset that we all need to work on, especially if your disability isn’t automatically visible to people. If you let them know from the start, then the conversation or situation may go a little smoother than if you had let them know later on.
Speak Up About What You Need
There’s so much more accessibility for people with disabilities now, it’s amazing! But...and this is a huge ‘but’, there is still a lot of work to be done in various areas. For example, in the past, whenever I would have team meetings, there would be a lot of effort put into drafting a list of topics that we were to go over, but despite reading lips and paying as close attention as possible, I was still apt to miss a few important things. I’ve also even had coworkers schedule an important group phone call, but they’d forget that I can’t participate in phone calls. This is where you need to speak up about what you need. Depending on the situation, you’ll need to converse with your coworkers or your manager about how they can accommodate what you need.
Confront Those Who Are a Little Wish-Washy
You know who I’m talking about. The ones that seem nice and may even have the best intentions, but their actions hurt or belittle you. They think that they are helping you by taking on everything that you are supposed to do, but in reality, they’re only making you look incompetent. They don’t seem to understand that you are perfectly capable of doing your job, you just do it a little differently. I’ve had people think that my hearing impairment meant that they needed to take care of everything for me but that’s not the case. Yes, I do need a few accommodations, but otherwise I’m just fine. So if you have someone that you work with who seems to keep taking your tasks away from you because they believe they’re helping you, confront them and let them know that you are perfectly capable. Unless you specifically ask for their help, you don’t need it.
The bottom line? Don’t be afraid to let everyone know that you have a disability and, most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Like I said before, today’s technology allows for more accessibility for people with disabilities than ever before, so let’s take advantage of it. Let’s show the world that we can do just as much as the next person provided we are given the right accommodations. In fact, your uniqueness may even shine a little light into your workplace because you can provide another perspective that they normally can’t see. So own it and flaunt it.