5 Tips for Employers to Encourage Productive Conversation Surrounding Disabilities and Chronic Illness by Hilary Jastram

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* October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. To honor this, many of the Sound Wisdom blog articles this month are meant to educate about disability-related employment issues and celebrate the diverse contributions brought to the workplace by employees with disabilities.  

Last week, I led a call for the social interest group for The Good Men Project. We are called “Creating Success with a Disability.” The topic of the conversation dovetails perfectly with National Disability Employment Awareness Month (to my mind, anyway).  

Bringing awareness to the general population of people living with disabilities is a monumental task and that is mainly because this is a layered topic.  

Why don’t people want to look people in wheelchairs in the eyes? 

Because they are afraid of being rude and staring (likely), but more so, because they are uncomfortable. 

And why are they uncomfortable? 

Maybe the person’s disease or disability has more to do with their own fear of how they don’t want to see themselves. They are a voyeur from the outside looking in, making pronouncements about others’ realities. I was the same way. I did not understand the other side of the coin (yet). I didn’t know the range of emotions a person wielding a cane or using a chair or other helpful tool might feel. I didn’t understand that despite illness or disability, life could even improve on all levels. 

But there is definitely a range of feelings around the topic, which happens to be cushioned by the very way we regard and refer to people with disabilities. Words have power, and I am of the opinion that if we renamed “disability” with another word, we would find fault with it, too.  

Here’s one take on the definition of the prefix “dis-” from Merriam-Webster: “to treat with disrespect or contempt : insult; … [to] do the opposite of.” 

When we combine “dis” and “ability,” because of the way we have labeled this definition we create a person or state of being which is less than, which is the opposite of ability. 

Try being a person who has been told they are disabled. It is as if they have heard they are no longer able. Not only are they, for example, a woman, mother, wife, etc., but again, they are “no longer able.” Every time they receive a piece of material from the state or their insurance company, every time they have to explain their physical reality, they are repeating in their head, “I am not able.”  

This is not a far leap to “I am incapable,” and here you have the merry ride that leads us from perception to bias and fear, which feeds into our hiring practices. 

Societally, we have embraced that people who are still thriving, living, and participating in life are not able to complete tasks, to take care for or think for themselves, to get around autonomously, etc., simply because they have a disability. 

And this thought camp has been in effect for decades…since who knows when. 

Which is why the topic of disclosing a disability (or not) was selected for the first call for this new group. 

We had to wade into the weeds of how much to disclose, the liabilities of sharing too much, the responsibility we all have to educate people and change the perception of the chronically ill and disabled. We spoke of the desire to be open and explain without the resultant reaction of fear from a prospective employer or client, the need for accommodations. The need for real requirements to live, such as taking a nap during the day, or using a backup plan if plan A isn’t able to be implemented at the last minute, or moving offices, or allowing some work from home, exist. People who have disabilities and chronic illnesses are up against the stereotype that instantly befalls them upon diagnosis: they are lazy excuse makers; they are incapable of critical thinking (as if a perceived weakness in the body equals a frail mind). They want to just get by; they expect different (unfair or privileged) treatment. They will cost the company money because they won’t be able to meet deadlines, and on and on it goes. This stigma is emboldened by the people who do chase ambulances and who want to cave into their baser instincts to do nothing. 

But employers, you should know that chronically ill and disabled people are the poster children for work smarter, not harder…because we have no choice! We have to preserve stamina. We have to find the most efficient manners in which to complete our to-dos. If we don’t, we might suffer a setback. So many of us are parents who cherish making a living wage and who are overly proud of taking care of our families…despite our circumstances. 

Here are five tips employers/potential clients can implement during the next conversation with a person with a disability or chronic illness who is seeking a job/project. 

  1. Listen to the accommodations needed with an open mind. Resist the urge to slam shut the door to more progressive conversation. Accommodations don’t mean lazy.  

  2. Be open to more than one way to complete a task. Your new worker might need to finish her role in chunks, instead of in a marathon flash. He may need to rest to stave off his headache before picking up the ball again. That’s okay as long as your deadline is met. 

  3. Speaking of deadlines, you can use several of them. Stating that you would like work turned in a little bit earlier than the true deadline when you need to implement a new program, etc., will give you a bit of a net. If that date cannot be met due to illness or other turns of events, then you are not sunk. You still have time. 

  4. Your new employee doesn’t owe you a laundry list of their symptoms, and that’s all right, too. Treading carefully is no different in this case than in any other. Human curiosity doesn’t give us the right to pry into other people’s lives. If someone is not comfortable sharing, so be it. You can still discuss the accommodations needed without the dirty details of what may be embarrassing or a vulnerability. 

  5. It is okay to question if there are any concerns that may get in the way of the job. Definitely check the laws and don’t proceed without doing so. But to move our conversations forward, we need to have deeper engagement. Would you hire a person who lived two hours away and didn’t have a car? If they weren’t sure they could be to the office on time, probably not. You can ask about the responsibilities the applicant or employee would be charged with and if they will be able to handle them. When I lost my job, the HR director and I had a similar conversation. It was open and honest, and it helped us both to make decisions. You have a job that needs to be done and you need a person who can do it. It is reasonable to talk about that. 

With the rising number of people receiving all sorts of diagnoses of diseases and disabilities, these conversations and the need to be sensitive and more honest than ever before will be paramount.

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The founder of Sick Biz, Hilary Jastram uses her experience with chronic illness to support other entrepreneurs with disabilities and invisible illnesses in their journey toward success and freedom. Her book Sick Success: The Entrepreneur’s Prescriptions for Turning Pain into Purpose and Profit is available now from AmazonBarnes & NobleBooks-a-Million, and other major retailers.