What Not to Say To Workers with Disabilities

The workplace, for many Americans, is the most culturally diverse experience available. DiversityInc magazine is publishing a series of conversations about things that should never be said in a diverse workplace. This week, Luke Visconti and Jim Sinocchi discuss the magazine's article on communicating with colleagues with disabilities.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, our money coach tells us the pros and cons of auto leasing, and what to do if that gas guzzler you leased last year is wearing you down at the pump. And as most families get ready to go back to school, the mocha moms ask what about schooling at home? But first, working with colleagues with disabilities.

A few minutes ago, we talked with a man who wants members of Congress to make more of an effort to hire disabled veterans. But let's say you already work in a diverse office. Do you ever feel like your job is a virtual minefield just salted with opportunities to offend and annoy your coworkers? Do you ever wish you had a roadmap to guide you through that difficult terrain?

Well, now you do. DiversityInc magazine is publishing a series of articles about things you just should not say to workers of diverse backgrounds. Today, we're talking about the seven things you should never say to disabled coworkers. Back with us is Luke Visconti of DiversityInc magazine. Also with us is Jim Sinocchi. He is an executive with IBM. Gentlemen, welcome.

Mr. LUKE VISCONTI (DiversityInc Magazine): Good to be here.

Mr. JIM SINOCCHI (Director of Workforce Communications, IBM): Good to be here.

MARTIN: Luke, let's start with you. Just how many disabled Americans are in the workforce right now?

Mr. VISCONTI: There are 11.8 million people with ADA-defined disabilities in the workforce. But the percentage of college-educated people with disabilities is higher than any other group, so you have a group of college-educated people who are not employed, which is all due to employers not focusing on this area, a lack of accessibility in workplaces, and it's an issue that is very slow to evolve.

MARTIN: So let's go right to the list of things not to say. The first on your list is what's wrong? What happened? Or, were you born that way? Why is this so offensive?

Mr. VISCONTI: I think that it's different by the person. Some people may feel comfortable discussing it. For other people, it's very very personal. As you develop a relationship, that becomes part of the relationship, and then it's an open thing. I think for some people, it's always a private thing.

MARTIN: Jim, let's ask you. I think you use a wheelchair, is that correct?

Mr. SINOCCHI: Yes, I do.

MARTIN: So has anybody ever said this to you, particularly as their opening comment?

Mr. SINOCCHI: I think it's gotten better over the years. I've been paralyzed now about 25 years, and I've noticed a change in how people approach. They're more tentative. They're trying to be more politically correct, but I still see a lot of faux pas. One is when they try to question you politely, they'll ask are you in your job because you're disabled?

MARTIN: What do you mean are you in your job because you're disabled? Are they suggesting that your disability is more important than your competence?

Mr. SINOCCHI: I think so. I think they're not sure. I think they're tentative. Today, I find that, especially when I go out with my wife, she'll get questions on the side. My wife is able-bodied, a very beautiful woman, and they'll ask her quietly, they'll pull her to the side, and they'll go, did you marry him like that? At a restaurant, they'll go to her, what does he want to eat?

MARTIN: No!

Mr. SINOCCHI: Oh, sure.

MARTIN: Oh, come on.

Mr. SINOCCHI: Sure. Or they'll bring the check, and they'll give it to her rather than me when it's obvious that she's with me having dinner, but they'll assume that because I'm in a wheelchair, for some reason, I can't play the male role.

MARTIN: You and I might have to fight about that, but this does go to number three on the list. Speaking slowly or loudly to someone who is in a wheelchair, and the implication of that, Luke, is what?

Mr. VISCONTI: I think that, you know, when you think about the progress of our society from 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, before that, people were locked in to their homes, and so really, in our society, this is a very short-term thing that people have been able to interact with people with profound ADA-defined disabilities. And so you see these kinds of errors. But you should really use your head when you're looking at somebody and think a little bit.

MARTIN: There's another one on the list that I'm just fascinated by. Why anybody thinks that he or she has a right to ask someone that he barely knows something so personal as, how do you go to the bathroom? I mean, Jim, please tell me that people you don't know don't ask you these questions.

Mr. SINOCCHI: That's a great question. I think people are more curious about it than not. It's akin to the question of, I didn't know you could have children, when I tell them I have a 25-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son, and it gets to your sexuality.

MARTIN: And the core issue is that people think that they, for whatever reason, have a right to ask you personal questions that they would not ask of an able-bodied person.

Mr. SINOCCHI: What I've learned over the years, I think it has to do with their degree of being uncomfortable, and what I try to do right away is to make them comfortable. I think it's the responsibility of the disabled person to understand who he or she is speaking with and then tell them a little bit about yourself because I think it relaxes people. So I'll tell them I was injured in a surfing accident. I am disabled. I'm paralyzed, and you really can't catch anything that you think I have. And so they'll start to laugh, but it does break the ice.

MARTIN: Luke, a couple of items on your list were head scratchers for some of us when we were talking about this. One seems like an effort to be nice or to be gracious on your list is, but you look so good.

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, you really want to relate to people as people. The person has a disability. The person is not disabled, and I think that that's where you kind of have to think about.

MARTIN: Is it the "but" in that sentence that's the problem here?

Mr. VISCONTI: Yes, it's always that part.

MARTIN: As if you shouldn't be looking that good, but you do?

Mr. VISCONTI: Yeah.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're talking about things you should never say to disabled coworkers with Jim Sinocchi of IBM and Luke Visconti of DiversityInc magazine. There's another statement on this list that I think some might be a little bit confused by. I don't think of you as a person with a disability. Jim, does that bother you?

Mr. SINOCCHI: I think I've heard it said, I forget you're disabled, which I think is a compliment. But I think people, when they look at a disabled person, they think that they're going to see an alien of some kind, like speak a different language, or watch two antenna pop up of my head, and they strip me of any emotion.

Like, for example, if I seem to respond either with laughter or with anger, as anyone would do in some cases, or I'm disappointed, some people attribute those emotions to the disability, when it's attributable to you responding as a human being to anything else. People are sort of surprised that you can emote the way that they do.

MARTIN: Luke makes the analogy here that - this is interesting because this speaks in part to world view, and this is the kind of thing some people may have different opinions about. Luke, in the article, you compare it to someone saying, I don't think of you as a woman. I don't think of you as black, or I don't think of you as Asian. I know that this has been said to me on a number of occasions. I know it's intended as a compliment, but I can tell you I don't necessarily take it as one, but Luke, can you help us sort of parse why both of those things can be true?

Mr. VISCONTI: I think that what you're hearing from is almost from, in the case of races, from a majority person to a person who's not in the majority. What you're trying to establish when you're hearing that is a person who's trying to establish that they feel like you can be in their tribe. And so this is an acceptance of a person who visually does not look like we're in the same tribes, so to speak.

MARTIN: Interesting. Can I ask you this? We've talked a lot about people with visible disabilities. What about people whose disabilities may not be visible? Do you think that there are different challenges there? Talk to me about that, if you would.

Mr. VISCONTI: It's interesting. We have a person in our office who has multiple sclerosis, and she has to - when she goes to treatments, sometimes she literally can't get to work. She has to sleep. And when you're an employer or a friend, you have to always be thinking of things so that you're not pushing people too hard, or you're not asking too much of them, and what I found is that they will accommodate.

When they're not feeling good, I get email sometimes at four in the morning because she tells me I woke up, I felt great, so I did some work. That's, I think, something that we all have to look at because it's, whether you're talking about HIV or MS or there are so many other things that are profound but invisible, I think when we become open-minded enough to accommodate people like that, we have a better workplace and a better society, and it's just a better life.

MARTIN: You've got something on the list that I think speaks to that. You say, oh, you're here. You must feel better. Why is that a bad thing to say?

Mr. VISCONTI: I think that oh, you're here. That's great is fine, but it's not a good idea to assume somebody's feeling better or not being affected by their disability that day. The woman at work that I was talking about, she gets to work on days I know she's not feeling well. I just know it. And she's doing it because she's intrepid. She's a courageous person, and she deals with it. So I think that that's kind of diminishing what they're going through when you say something like that, even though it's well intentioned.

MARTIN: I see. And this actually leads to a question I have for Jim. This is not on the list, but what about help? When is it appropriate to offer help to a colleague with a disability, even if you don't know whether they need it, but there's a situation where you think that they might. Can you offer some guidelines about when it's appropriate to offer help, and how one can do that?

Mr. SINOCCHI: I think it works both ways. I think the best way to approach a disabled person is to ask a question that's nonjudgmental. So, they could say, Jim, can I help you with that? Can I help you reach that? Or, what do you need me to do. Just tell me. Or, on going back to my point about the disabled person being responsible, you know, for his own well-being, I would say, hey, would you mind giving me a hand with this? And if you kind of do it that way, I think, you know, you leave open a vast number of possibilities, even where people will ask you to go to lunch just because they want to be with you, not because they think you need help having lunch.

MARTIN: And Luke, along those lines, I know you do some work along this - other series of articles on these points, but I just want to say, just to conclude, do you have some things you should say to a disabled colleague.

Mr. VISCONTI: We actually just came out with that article. Allow people to identify themselves. So, if you say, if you ask the question, what's the term that you prefer, you're giving a person the respect of their own identity. Ask them, can I ask you about your disability? I think it's a polite way of opening a bridge, and even that one I think I would wait until I knew the person a little bit before I - that wouldn't be on the second or third word - sentence out of my mouth.

MARTIN: OK. Luke Visconti is the cofounder of DiversityInc Magazine. Jim Sinocchi is an executive with IBM. Luke joined us from our member station WBGO in Newark, and Jim joined us on the phone from New York. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SINOCCHI: You're welcome.

Mr. VISCONTI: Thanks, Michel.

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