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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

6 Things to Never Say (or Do) to Your Disabled Co-worker

person with a disability shaking hands with a colleague
Daniel Tardif/Getty Images

As a disabled person, I have been kissed without permission, had my crutches grabbed from me, and been excluded from activities and invitations countless times. Growing up, it felt like I simply had to accept that this would be my life. I was so used to microaggressions that it didn’t occur to me until I was much older that they were a result of perceptions and societal beliefs around disabled people, and that these beliefs informed how I was treated in school, work, and my personal relationships.

When I started the Twitter hashtag #AbledsAreWeird, it was with the aim of giving space to disabled people to express their discomfort with strange, everyday experiences they have with able-bodied people. It went viral, trending at number three in the United States and number four in Australia the next day.

The anecdotes people shared from the U.S. to France to Kenya can offer a guide as to how to interact with disabled people—and how not to.

Navigating a workspace as someone with a disability can be difficult and nerve-racking. Inaccessible buildings and office cultures and even new routines can be daunting, and at times, the people around us can add to those stressors by making us feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

Should you have a new co-worker in the office, the last thing you want to do is make them feel like they don’t belong. So here are six things you should avoid saying—or doing—to your disabled co-worker.

1. Don’t Ask “What’s Wrong With You?”

Before you say that you would never, this question appears in the lives of disabled people with depressing frequency. It pops up in grocery stores, churches—and yes, even the office.

As disabled employees, we already feel as though we’ve just gotten our bosses to see our work before our disability, so this kind of inquiry from our peers can put us on edge. We have to navigate the fine line of being disabled and requesting the (sometimes expensive) accommodations we need while trying to not let that speak over our value to our employer. Bringing up our disabilities can put us on the spot around those who have the power to end our employment.

2. Don’t Ask “Why Do You Get Special Treatment?”

Disabled people don’t get “special treatment.” We have accommodations made that are ensured to us by law. Unlike Kevin who had a treadmill desk installed, your disabled co-worker’s text reader program or additional flex time are needed to make sure they can care for their health as well as perform the duties of their job.

Without those adjustments to their work life, their ability to complete tasks would be compromised, jeopardizing their employment overall, which, in turn, could endanger their access to healthcare. It’s a vicious cycle.

3. Don’t Say “You Don’t Look Disabled!”

Frequently a follow-up to “Why do you get special treatment?” this phrase is usually directed at people with invisible disabilities. Just because someone doesn’t “look” disabled to you doesn’t mean they don’t need accommodations based on disability.

Many disabilities cannot be judged based on appearance alone and still deserve technical and social support. Basing deservedness for accommodations on someone’s appearance is not only inaccurate, but it can also lead to a contentious and hostile work environment for that disabled employee well into the future. And, if you’re not the boss or in HR, it’s really none of your business.

4. Don’t Touch Us Without Asking First

I don’t see why you would need to touch anyone in a professional environment in the first place, but you should always ask a disabled person if you can touch them before you actually do it—even if you want to help.

While we may appear to you to be struggling, that may not be the case. Just because we’re lifting, carrying, or moving in a manner unfamiliar to you, it does not mean we’re actually having a hard time or want to be helped.

Respect our boundaries and acknowledge that “no” always means “no” even if you think you know better than we do. (This also goes for our mobility devices like wheelchairs and crutches. Do not touch them without asking.)

5. Don’t Say “You’re So Smart for Someone Like You”

If you think we’re smart, there shouldn’t be a caveat. It’s patronizing to assume that anyone with a disability isn’t intelligent or can’t keep up with our co-workers as peers.

Quite often, disabled people find themselves over-educated and underemployed. We navigate often inaccessible academic environments to get diplomas and letters behind our names so that we can be taken more seriously by potential employers, but employers are still slow when hiring disabled people.

In short, if we’re there working alongside you, we deserve to be there at least as much as you do.

6. Don’t Plan Post-Work Hangouts That Aren’t Accessible

Camaraderie is an important factor in modern office environments. Happy hour drinks, dinners, or even outings to an amusement park or arcade can shape the way co-workers interact during business hours. Your disabled peer deserves to be there too.

Make sure to find places that work for the accessibility needs of all employees rather than just the able-bodied ones. It goes a long way toward making someone feel like they’re a part of the team rather than a benchwarmer.

And if a disabled co-worker declines your invitation with no explanation a couple of times, they could be dealing with issues related to their disability or illness and don’t want to tell you. It doesn’t mean they have no interest in socializing with colleagues and want to be excluded going forward. Keep inviting them and they’ll attend when they can.

If it feels like the rules of office conduct are being rewritten, it’s because it’s necessary to bring more people to the table and effect real change for those who are still underrepresented in the workplace and beyond. By taking care not to heap yet another microaggression on a person with disabilities, you can allow them the break they need to focus on other goals and aspirations.