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Effective communication in the workplace
Effective communication in the workplace

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3 Disability and communication

According to government data (DWP, 2018), there are almost eight million people of working age living with a disability or health condition in the UK. Not all are in employment, but many who aren’t would like to be.

Living with a disability, or working with someone who has a disability, presents no additional communication barriers in many cases. However, in some cases there may be some issues to consider. In this section you will explore perceptions of disability and how they can impact negatively on communication.

Activity 4 Talking about disability

Timing: Allow 15 minutes for this activity

Watch this video produced by Scope, which features people with a broad range of disabilities and highlights some of the awkward questions that disabled people are frequently asked at work.

Follow this link to access the video: 

‘End the awkward at work’: disabled people tell Scope their stories and tips [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

If you have a disability, how did you feel after watching the video? Can you identify with any of the points raised?

If you don’t have a disability, how did the video make you feel? Have you ever made similar comments or judgements?


There are no right or wrong answers here, but it is important to understand how others feel. The awkwardness is experienced by both parties and communicating these feelings honestly will help to reduce the impact on your work and relationships with colleagues.

Scope’s ‘End the Awkward’ (no date) campaign suggests the following when communicating with someone who has a disability:

  • Think about the language you use when referring to a disabled person. Refer to them by name, rather than as ‘the visually impaired one’ etc.
  • Don’t ask inappropriate questions about their disability or how they cope with certain aspects of life. Focus on the person rather than their disability and choose topics that you’d chat to any colleague about, e.g. the weather, what they did at the weekend etc.
  • Don’t make assumptions about their impairment or assume they need your help. For example, do not grab the handles of a wheelchair without the occupant’s permission, even if they look like they need help. Ask them about their needs and how you can best help them in the workplace.
  • If you are their manager, you will need to ensure that reasonable adjustments are made to remove or minimise disadvantages in the workplace.
  • If an individual is accompanied by a helper, interpreter etc., be sure to communicate with the individual themselves rather than directing your questions or comments to the person who is with them.

If you have a disability yourself, you may feel anxious about fitting into a workplace or being able to communicate effectively with your colleagues, and in some cases this may stop you from looking for employment.

But according to the NHS (2017) almost half of all disabled people of working age are now employed.

People with different disabilities can and do have successful careers in a huge variety of roles and sectors and there are many employers that do not see disability as problematic. For example, a Manager for National Grid says:

Creating an inclusive environment where everybody is welcomed and developed to fulfil their potential is part of National Grid’s inclusion and diversity policy. The employees that join us do exactly the same jobs as anybody else and have totally fitted in. It’s fantastic to see the confidence of people grow once they’re back at work and we’ve implemented quite a few operational ideas put forward by our disabled candidates.

(Radar, n.d.)

Being able to communicate effectively with employers and colleagues is a crucial part of building confidence in the workplace and this is no different for people with or without disabilities. Those with limited employment experience can build their communication skills in other ways, such as through volunteering, undertaking work experience or participating in social activities.

It is important to note that some disabilities or health conditions could give certain benefits for specific roles, so focusing on strengths is important.

Described image
Figure 3 Focus on your strengths.

For example, a banking professional has the following story:

I’m the best proof reader for reports in my area. You’d think with a severe visual impairment that I’d be the worst but because my issue with my sight forces me to read things more slowly than others, conversely I notice errors or poor grammar more than anyone else does. I also only have to read a report once (no matter how complicated) to get its full meaning whilst my peers tend to charge through them (as I used to when my sight was better) and then have to read them again as they fail to get the full message.

(Radar, n.d.)