TLDR; Allyship - How to show your support and make your colleagues feel safe and welcome.
Disclosing a disability at work is no easy task. It’s a highly personal decision that forces someone into a vulnerable position with no assurance of the outcome. It’s no surprise that a Harvard Business Review survey showed 76% of employees don’t fully disclose their disabilities. Because they feel exposed, they will be watching for any hint of negativity or aggression directed at them. But they aren’t the only ones who may feel uncomfortable.
If you are the person receiving the news, you may struggle with your own discomfort. What should you say? How should you react? Even well-meaning comments can come across as hurtful, so it’s important to know how to support a colleague at a sensitive time.
Below, we will look at reasons why a coworker would disclose their disability, possible reactions, and simple ways to create an atmosphere of allyship.
There are several reasons why a colleague would talk about their disability, even if it’s an invisible one. Because everyone’s life situation is unique, their reason could be listed below or it could be a combination of factors.
By keeping these in mind, you can better listen and understand what your coworker needs.
Since employers question gaps in work history, it can be helpful to explain what caused it. A disability is a justifiable reason that can be explained in a way that highlights a person’s strengths.
A supportive, accepting atmosphere makes for happier and more productive employees. Nobody wants to feel lonely and isolated at their job, and finding acceptance among coworkers can go a long way towards boosting morale.
To hide a disability is to hide a major part of someone’s identity. This is a constant mental and emotional burden to carry while trying to work. For many people, the freedom to be their whole selves without shame or fear improves their sense of well being.
One of the most difficult parts of disclosing a disability is not knowing what kind of reaction it will bring.
Some people are curious and want to ask more questions (even inappropriate ones). Others may be distrustful, wondering why they haven’t been told before. And some may not say anything immediately because they are processing the information.
This can be a challenging situation for you as the listener, especially if you’ve never experienced it before. You may feel awkward and unsure how to react. Because of this, you may be hesitant to initiate conversation about how to help the other person.
As with many things, preparation can greatly determine the outcome. Even if you’ve never dealt with this, you may have to one day, and it’s much easier to do so if you’re not caught unawares.
Here are four simple ways to respond in a positive way that will set both you and your colleague at ease.
You may have heard that a critical part of good communication is listening. It’s especially true in delicate situations where someone is talking about their disability.
If you don’t know what to do, start listening. Just the simple courtesy of giving the person time and space to express themselves can reassure them that you mean no harm.
Try to remember some of the possible reasons why they are talking to you. It may help you understand where they are coming from and what they need most.
After listening, a non-judgmental attitude is of the utmost importance. Even well-meaning statements or questions can come off as aggressive and condescending.
Be careful about asking for more personal information than they are willing to share. Instead, a positive, empathetic attitude can build a foundation of honest communication.
Support can be tangible and intangible. The most immediate kind comes through listening with a sympathetic attitude.
Depending on your company setup, you may be able to suggest someone they can talk to for more assistance, such as a human resources person. They may also find helpful support online with The Job Accommodations Network. If you are in an authority position, it’s perfectly alright to take time to regroup, consider all the information, and get back to them with an appropriate solution.
Instead of trying to have all the answers, let your colleague take the lead in the conversation. After all, they have the most insight into how their disability affects their work. Asking how you can best support them will not only get you the necessary information, it will also show them that you genuinely care about improving their situation.
Clear, respectful communication is the key to navigating a potentially difficult situation. By not assuming you know what the person needs, you can better listen to what they are saying.
Try to be specific with your questions to understand how they function best in the workplace and what may be an obstacle. They may need to communicate in a certain way or turn their desk towards a wall.
Above all, a friendly attitude will make all communication more successful. You want the other person to feel safe talking with you about their disability, even if you don’t have an immediate answer.
Disclosing a disability can be intimidating, both for the disabled person and the one learning about it. But it doesn’t have to be if you follow the tips above. By listening without judgment, offering support, and following their lead, you can learn how to be supportive and open up lines of communication.
A challenging situation can turn into a rewarding one where you become the person’s ally. They are empowered by your support, and sharing their disability enables you to help them feel accepted and welcome in the workplace.