Erica Pinsky



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The Best of Erica 5


Respecting the Ability in DisAbility


In July 2007, my 11 year old daughter Abee and I went to San Diego where I attended a National Speakers Association event while my daughter took part in a Youth Leadership Conference.  At the end of each day, my daughter was bubbling over with news about the exciting speakers she had heard.


One of these presenters, Canadian motivational speaker Alvin Law, had made a huge impression on Abee.  Born without arms in the early 1960’s, Alvin was one of the unfortunate group of “Thalidomide” babies.  Doctors advised his birth parents that Alvin, being so severely deformed, was doomed to a life of hardship and limitation.  Alvin was given up for adoption.  Happily for him, his first foster family took a different perspective on Alvin’s potential.  They chose to focus on the “ability” in disability - long before that concept became mainstream.  Alvin’s foster parents encouraged him to use his feet as hands.  That first night, my daughter couldn’t wait to recount all the amazing things Alvin can do that we can’t.


The next day, Abee’s group played a game of wheelchair basketball with a local youth team.  “You know, Mum,” she said that evening, “if someone in a wheelchair is struggling with something, like trying to open a door, don’t just go over and do it for them.  Don’t ask them if they need help right away.  They like it better if we wait for a few minutes to see if they can do it themselves.  Then, if they are still struggling, you can just go and open the door for yourself which might let them get through, or you can ask them if they need any help.  They don’t like it when you just help them.  It makes them feel helpless; like they are little kids who can’t do anything.”  As I listened, it struck me that she was learning how to demonstrate respectful behaviour towards people with disabilities.   What a great opportunity she had been given.


As someone in the Respect Business, I would like to be able to say that I already knew what my daughter had shared with me.  The fact is, however, that I grew up in an era when persons with disabilities, both visible and invisible, were generally hidden away from “mainstream” society.   I remember a time when public venues were not accessible to those confined to a wheelchair.  I remember when “cripple” and “retard” were commonly used terms.  I never had the opportunity to learn, as Abee has, how to respectfully interact with individuals that were different from me - and in particular, persons with disabilities.  I have no doubt that the fact that she possesses this knowledge at such an early age will be a distinct advantage for Abee as she negotiates her way in the diverse, multi-cultural world that is our current reality.


I also have no doubt that businesses promoting that kind of awareness and knowledge among their employees will also enjoy the same advantage.   “Running a business is all about the relationships you build,” says Lori Golden, AccessAbilities Leader at Ernst & Young.  “Effective teaming has to be built on solid working relationships. Knowing what is right to say and what is right to do is not just about being courteous; it’s about making everyone comfortable.”1


These days, that “everyone” increasingly includes persons with disabilities.  In a time when we are all hearing more and more about our shrinking talent pool, some employers are discovering a gold mine of talent which is still, for the most part, untapped in North America.  In BC, it is estimated that we have 300,000 working age persons with disabilities, many of whom want to be working.  Within this group, approximately 34,000 have college diplomas, 30,000 have trade certificates, and 28,000 have university degrees.  However, almost two thirds of those individuals are not yet members of our work force.2


Before you go rushing out to hire more people with disabilities, I recommend you spend some time making sure your workplace culture is one that will be welcoming.  In addition to thinking about how to make individuals with disabilities comfortable in your workplace, you need to examine how such a decision might affect your current employee group.


I recently met a client who has spent his entire career in a traditionally male dominated workplace.  His experience with the integration of women into his workplace was abrupt.  One day, a number of years ago, he got to work and there they were.  No one spoke to him and his co-workers ahead of time.  No one told them that female employees had been hired and would be starting immediately.  No one talked about how this would affect them or their workplace.  No one gave them an opportunity to talk about the impact this decision might have on them and how they felt about it.  No one enquired as to what type of support might be needed.  That missed step laid the foundation for a litany of problems that are still evident in that workplace today.


In “A Christmukah Story,” I explained the importance of respectful and inclusive dialogue to address the fear that can arise when an organization begins a workplace diversity initiative.  The question is, what does this type of dialogue look like when we are talking about workplace diversity with respect to persons with disabilities?


Of course, I have my own ideas about how to frame that dialogue.  However, after my daughter’s experience at the conference, I decided to contact someone that had more than simply theoretical knowledge on this subject.  I wanted someone who could talk to me from his own experience.  So I contacted Tom Patch, LL.M, Associate Vice President of Equity at the University of British Columbia, and scheduled an interview.* Tom, a former member of the BC Human Rights Tribunal, has been in a wheelchair for most of his adult life due to a sports related injury he suffered in his late teens.


The first thing to be aware of, Tom advised me, is our language.  We are talking about hiring a person with a disability, as opposed to hiring a disabled person.  “The preferred language is ‘person with a disability,’ the distinction being the person having a disability, as opposed to the disability being the person.”  And that leads to the next critical issue to bear in mind when thinking about individuals with disabilities – the importance of seeing past the disability to the person that has that disability.  This means looking at the individual and who he or she is, as opposed to just seeing the group that an individual identifies with.


“One of the challenges when dealing with employees with disabilities is that we are all different.  To some extent that is because disabilities differ and to another extent people differ.”  One important distinction is whether an individual has a visible or an invisible disability.  “People with visible disabilities have no choice about disclosing their disabilities.  They are out.  An individual with an invisible disability can be selective.  He or she may tell their employers or they may not.”


That said, Tom believes that, “…the commonality is that individuals with both types of disability want to know that their employer can see beyond the disability without ignoring the disability.”  Some individuals with disabilities may need accommodation (though many do not), and they need to know that their employer will be working proactively and collaboratively with them to manage that issue.  What is critically important is for employers to send a clear message about creating a respectful culture where each individual employee can be supported to be successful.  Employers should focus on building empathy into the spirit of the workplace culture.


I asked Tom what an employer should be thinking about relative to creating a welcoming and respectful environment for a person with disabilities.  “The first critical step for an employer is to have a frank discussion with the person to find out whether that individual has any particular requests or needs.  The employer needs to discover what that individual would find welcoming and respectful.  It comes back to respecting that individual’s wishes and respecting his/her desire for autonomy.  Most people with disabilities will have dealt with these issues and so will have their own ideas and be comfortable discussing them.


There was a slogan that came out of the disability rights movement in the seventies: Nothing About Us Without Us.  The message behind the slogan was simple.  For too long, people with disabilities have had other people making decisions for them - in all aspects of their lives.  Not surprisingly, however, people with disabilities want to live independently and with autonomy.”


Tom’s experiences with people trying to help him because he is in a wheel chair affirmed the message my daughter had conveyed to me.  “There are few things more irritating than having someone offer to help you and for you to say, ‘no thanks,’ but they insist on doing it anyway,” explained Tom. “It is demeaning.  The message is I see you have a disability and I assume that you are not capable of looking after yourself.  They may feel that they are being helpful.  What they are actually doing is devaluing me.”


“Being in a wheelchair,” Tom continued, “sometimes people decide I need a push - and do so without asking me.  My wheelchair is part of me.  While I might accept help if asked, in a way it feels like an assault to have someone push me up a hill without my permission. It also deprives me of my independence.  For most people with disabilities, independence is a core value and we work most of our lives to hang onto as much independence as we can.”


Tom and I talked about how an employer might prepare a specific team to welcome a new employee that has a disability.  The underlying interest is in creating an environment which will encourage respectful and productive working relationships.  Here again, Tom’s advice was for the employer to allow the employee to outline what would feel welcoming for them.  “The key is to have the dialogue ahead of time.  There are some people who would welcome the opportunity to talk to their colleagues ahead of time; others would want their employer to do this in advance of their start date.  Still others would prefer to deal with issues when and if they arise.  Personally, I would not want any advance conversation about my disability, though I would not object to people knowing that I am in a wheelchair.  Often the personal connection is the strongest way to build awareness.”


However, it would be important for an employer to involve the team in a dialogue if the new employee is going to be accommodated in a manner that will affect the other members of the team.  In some cases, the individual with the disability might be interested in being part of that discussion and talking to the group.  In other cases the individual might prefer not to be directly involved.  Again, the key is to avoid making assumptions about what might be best.  The employer must involve those directly affected by the decision making process.


Employers can look to organizations like the Canadian Paraplegic Association or the Western Institute for the Deaf to help prepare their workplaces for individuals with disabilities.  Tom advised me that these types of organizations might “have people that can assist if there is a need for someone to do pre-awareness.  They might also be in the position to be the intermediary, or give advice on the type of conversation to have about getting the workplace ready for the person.”


Another source of information about respectful behaviour towards employees with disabilities comes from The US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.  They offer some guidelines that could provide a framework to initiate discussion with employees, either in anticipation of the arrival of a new employee with a disability, or when offering disability awareness training as part of a diversity initiative.  These guidelines include:


1 - Use common courtesies. Extend your hand to shake hands or hand over business cards. If the individual cannot shake your hand or grasp the card, he or she will tell you and direct where you may place the card.


2- If the person has a speech impairment, and you are having difficulty understanding what he or she is saying, ask the individual to repeat, rather than pretend to understand. Listen carefully, and repeat back what you think you heard to ensure effective communication.


3 - If you believe that an individual with a disability needs assistance, go ahead and offer the help - but wait for your offer to be accepted before you take any action.


4 - If you are speaking to a person who is blind, be sure to identify yourself at the beginning of the conversation and announce when you are leaving. Don’t be afraid to use common expressions that refer to sight, such as “See you later.”


5 - If you wish to get the attention of a person who is deaf, tap the person gently on the shoulder or arm. Look directly at the person, and speak clearly in a normal tone of voice. Keep your hands away from your face, and use short, simple sentences. If the person uses a sign language interpreter, speak directly to the person, not to the interpreter.


6 - If you encounter someone with a service animal, such as a seeing-eye dog, do not touch or distract the animal. Service animals are working, and it breaks their training to interact with others when they are on duty. When the animal is not working, some owners might allow interaction.


7- When having a conversation with a person who uses a wheelchair, if at all possible put yourself at the person’s eye level. Never lean on or touch a person’s wheelchair or any other assistive device. This equipment is part of the person’s personal space, and it is jarring or disturbing for anyone to have his or her personal space invaded.


8- If you are speaking with an individual with a cognitive disability, you may need to repeat or rephrase what you say. If you are giving instructions on how to perform a task, you may also need to give the instructions in writing.3


I reviewed this list with Tom and went over my experience learning from my daughter and the value I felt could be gained from sharing that type of knowledge.  He agreed with me that the list could be a useful tool for employers.  One of the values Tom found in the list was that “it shows that you don’t have to be afraid of disability.  A common misconception is that people with disabilities are sensitive about their disabilities.  In fact, however, for us it is simply part of who we are.”  Tom suggested that employers “…go beyond the list and recognize that people with disabilities do have differences.  They have different ways of communicating and different ways of relating to the world.  These differences need to be acknowledged and accepted.  It is not a question of ignoring the disability.  It is about recognizing difference and welcoming it.”


There are a whole host of options an employer can consider to build an organizational culture that will be fundamentally respectful and welcoming to all employees.  And when we are talking about culture change, we do need to consider ongoing initiatives, rather that one obligatory training session.  At Ernst & Young, employees receive  “tip sheets” with basic information on topics such as how to conduct an interview respectfully and the importance of being aware of our choice of words.  These sheets include “examples that demonstrate how to be respectful. The more we give our people that information the better they are able to relate to one another.  Whether it’s [via] our newsletter, at a meeting or in a fun, interactive format, people are getting bits and pieces over time. It lets people get more engaged and, because it’s layered over time, it tends to stick more.”4


Tom closed our interview with a comment on the importance of workplace culture for businesses that want to take advantage of the untapped labour pool of individuals with disabilities in BC.  “One of the ways to begin is to start changing organizational culture to make it welcoming so that organizations send the message they want to be employers of choice for individuals with disabilities.”


My sentiments exactly. As I have expressed in previous newsletters, businesses wanting to win the war for talent should start thinking about how to create a respectful workplace culture that will be truly welcoming to a whole host of different individuals.  We need to create workplaces where all types of individual differences and distinctions are respected and appreciated.  Apparently Lori Golden and her colleagues at Ernst & Young share my belief that creating a respectful and welcoming culture is a business imperative:  “We really feel this is the future… it’s how you create an environment in which people can feel supported and valued so they can do their best work… you need to give them a culture where they can thrive.”5


1 Hastings, Rebecca.  “Disability Etiquette Starts with Common Sense.”  Society for Human Resource Management On Line  October 2007.


2Richmond, Honorable Claude, Minister of Employment and Income Assistance.  “Hotel and Disabled Workers Initiative.”  Vancouver, B.C. 30 April 2007.


3,4,5 Hastings, Rebecca.  “Disability Etiquette Starts with Common Sense.”  Society for Human Resource Management On Line  October 2007.


* Tom Patch retired from UBC in December 2012.

"With the first of the baby boomers beginning to retire, businesses are making retaining and recruiting new talent a high priority.  Those that are ready to embrace this challenge will find Erica’s book, Road to Respect invaluable, as it lays the foundations of how to create a positive and efficient work environment that employees will not want to leave.  The best part is, it does not require a lot of financial capital: only the will to embrace the fundamental principles shared in this book."

Kamal Basra,

Sophia Financial Group

Raymond James Ltd.