Disabilities in the Workforce Part 3: Workplace Culture Minus the Culture Shock

Hi readers,

Welcome back to the IndependenceChick blog and the final part of our series on PWDs in the workforce.

So, you’re a person with a disability who also has some mad working skills in your field. You prepared adequately all through school, you aced the interview, and now you have a job you love, or at least like. Are you done? No…you still need to adapt to workplace culture. Like any culture, this can come with culture shock. Suddenly there are new rules to follow, new unspoken cues to memorize, and new people who may or may not be friendly. In fact, some may be downright hostile (we’ll get to them). No matter where you work and what your work entails though, you deserve the chance to thrive in workplace culture. How do you do it? Here are a few tips.

Introduce yourself. Remember, even if you have a job coach with you, the job is yours and the place in the office (or field, or whatever) is yours. It is primarily your responsibility to introduce yourself and make social inroads. Coming from an introvert who has made some mistakes on this front, let’s go over some dos and don’ts.
Do act friendly. Some PWDs go into work or any new situation expecting to be looked down on or ignored. Often this is because it’s happened before. That’s hurtful and take it from somebody who knows–it can make starting over hard. Resist the temptation to stay in a shell or act bitter, however. Smile. Make the level of eye contact you can. Ask basic questions–who people are, what they like about working here, and so on. Hang around the lounge on break. Listen in on conversations (politely) to get a feel for who might share your interests.
Do give people their space. If you’ve had a solitary job up to now or are otherwise conversation-starved, you might monologue without meaning to. Again, I say this because I’ve done it. Rule of thumb: listen twice as much as you talk. Sometimes it can be hard to determine whose turn it is to speak; if you’re unsure, say something like, “I’m sorry. What were you saying?”
Do talk about your disability. Of course, you don’t have to say, “Hi, I’m Doug and I have X.” That’s pigeonholing yourself. But do welcome questions and briefly explain what you need. Example: if you are deaf, you might have to remind hearing colleagues not to turn away from you or talk with full mouths because you might need to read their lips.
Don’t spend every break alone. Again, preaching to the past, uninformed me as well as other job-seekers. It’s criminally easy to stay to yourself when you’re new. Spending some time alone is just fine, especially if you’re introverted. But force yourself to socialize at least a little.
Don’t cover your needs. As in, let’s say you’ve been invited to lunch and you order that delicious-looking pasta. But oops, you didn’t realize you’d need to cut it, and you’re not so great at that. The easy thing to do would be blush and stammer, apologize, or send your meal back. If you really don’t want to ask for help, ask the waiter/waitress if your dish can be cut up in the kitchen. But if you’re comfortable, ask a colleague for help. This goes for most situations where your disability might come up.
Don’t use your disability as an excuse to be rude, show up late, be messy, or anything else. Most of us would never consciously do this, but like with everybody else, there are some who would. That will cost you relationships and possibly the job itself.

More tips:

Personalize your space. How much you can do so depends on your workplace’s rules. For example, if the rule is, no personal items on the desk, you might have to settle for a personalized screen saver. If a uniform is required, you might wear modest jewelry. But modest personalization–photographs, work-appropriate colors and jewelry, and so on–clue your coworkers in to who you are. You’re not “that disabled guy/girl”, you’re Bella, who loves painting, or Josh, who follows NASCAR.

Go the extra mile. Sometimes this means turning in a project early, or offering to cover for a coworker who’s sick. Sometimes it means asking the boss for clarification even when you think you understand instructions. Some people hesitate to do this because they think it’s brown-nosing. If overdone, that’s exactly what it is; for example, don’t point out how good your work is compared to others’ or show up two hours early just because you can. But done right, it shows initiative and drive.

Never be a doormat. Workplace bullying happens. You’re talking to a gal who went through it, and it SUCKS. Bullies exist to intimidate you, cut you down, and generally make work miserable. Do NOT sit there and take it.

Not sure if you’re being bullied? Here are a few key ways to tell:

People ignore you, or stop talking whenever you walk in a room.
You are pulled into surprise meetings all the time and told what you’ve done wrong. OR, you are told what you’ve allegedly done wrong, but nobody will give you examples or tell you how to fix it.
Your boss or coworkers yell at, harshly criticize, or otherwise bully you in front of others–or alone so there aren’t witnesses. Yet you are disciplined when you try to stick up for yourself.
You experience physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach problems, hives, etc.
You’ve become afraid that anything you say or do will be criticized or that you’ll be fired.

Workplace bullying does not have to be based on disability; whether it is or not, you are within your rights to report it and be protected. However, these red flags may tell you if the bullying is disability-based:

Your requests for modifications are refused or not dealt with adequately.
Your coworkers say things like, “I/we are not sure you can handle the demands of this job,” citing your specific difficulties, in a “compassionate” tone
Your boss or other superiors say things like, “You need to learn to do this yourself/somebody needs to make you do this/if they can do it, why can’t you” (when referencing something they know, and have known for awhile, needs to be modified or that you need an exemption from)
Your coworkers consistently make “jokes” regarding disabilities and expect you to laugh.

Hopefully, this will not happen, but the more informed you are, the safer and more comfortable you will feel. Fortunately, many workplace cultures want *all* people working with them. If you are open, friendly, and yourself, you should be able to get along at work and enjoy your job. If not, well, the workplace itself has work to do.

Best of luck, job-seekers!



  1. Great resources. Thanks for writing this! I’m curious: do folks have any legal recourse if bullying is disability related? I know failing to accommodate can result in a lawsuit, but what about harassment?

  2. That’s (unfortunately) completely dependent on the case you have. In my case, the bullies acted either alone so there were no witnesses, or they had backup from those in power (i.e., I couldn’t go to the administration because the administration was in on it). Failure to accommodate can result in a lawsuit, but unfortunately, the burden of proof ends up on the person with the disability. Because harassment is often verbal and psychological, it’s tougher to prove.

    This is the case with a lot of discrimination lawsuits. Yet I find PWDs are even more vulnerable because the court, the Equal Opportunity Commission, whatever, can look at the case and say, “Well, CAN you do this job the way everybody else can?” And then when you say no, they say, “Well, we can’t prove harassment because the other party will claim they were just concerned.” Which is a load of crap.

    What you also run into is that a lot of these lawsuits have big companies for defendants. The companies know nobody has the money to fight them, especially PWDs who are often dependent on SSI and/or work for low wages. Ergo, they get away with what they’re doing for that reason and because they can say, “We’re just being protective.” A lot of PWDs get their claims thrown out, and most people aren’t aware of it.

    This brings me back to the fact that if the face of disability in America is ever going to change, it has to start at babyhood, from the grassroots up. If a baby is born into a society that says, “You have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else no matter how well you walk, talk, or use the bathroom,” then adulthood will be a lot easier. It will be far easier for people to not only recognize disability discrimination and disability-related hate crimes, but to call them what they are and make the legal system deal with them (instead of saying, “That’s *just* abuse; call Social Services”, or worse, “That’s unfortunate, but oh, well.”

    In the meantime, I’d say go to Legal Aid or talk to attorneys about working pro bono. Despite the bad rap lawyers get, there truly are some who want to help. And although I hate the idea of pushing anyone into a shark tank–get the media involved if you have to. Nothing gets an issue out there quite like a TV camera.

  3. Addendum: It is NOT hopeless. Also, physical abuse is a lot easier to prove, so those claims are less likely to be thrown out. You’ll also have an easier time if the bully actually said something like, “Why were you hired, you worthless crip?” I’m not saying I would ever want these things to happen because I don’t. But most bullies, especially adults, are savvy and sneaky enough not to be that obvious.

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