Disability Awareness: Our Responsibility as Counselors to Educate the Community at Large
By Jill D. Flansburg
With over 25 years of experience in the vocational rehabilitation field, and nearly 15 years experience with workforce programs, the recent article by Hall & Parker (2010) really struck a chord for me. The article described a study of an employment office where persons with disabilities met with additional barriers when trying to get services as compared to persons with no disabilities. They described frustration of the customers, their counselors and the public program staff members.
Persons in employment offices, human resources departments and even in educational settings are often unaware of how their behavior is perceived by the job seeker with disabilities. This is not a new concept. A brief search on the Internet for disability awareness programs yields numerous resources, but no solution has been able to reach the number of workers needing this kind of training (Hall, 2008). It may be a new role for the career counselor to train others who are assisting people seeking employment.
Counselors as Trainers
Disability conditions comprise another “culture” that requires awareness and effort to develop understanding. This article outlines strategies for how to share this expertise with the community. The hope is that counselors will view their local communities as secondary clients who can benefit from the counselors’ experience and advice. Literature shows that long-term effects can result from short-term disability awareness training (Riolletta & Nettlebeck, 2007).
Having worked for a large, community-based, non-profit for many years, I became involved in providing disability awareness and communication skills training. Even though there were specialized counselors working directly with persons with disabilities, and even though the emphasis was on placing people into community businesses, persons with severe disabilities mingled daily with the general population of agency employees. After hearing comments of discomfort and frustration from both sides, the rehabilitation programs staff members designed a training session meant to enhance understanding and develop communication skills and etiquette.
How to Choose Your Audience
The audience for such training can be based on who comes into contact with the clients. Community based organizations or employment service agencies and human resource representatives might benefit from refreshing their knowledge of disability symptoms and helpful factors to keep in mind. It’s easy to focus on physical barriers, such as steps instead of ramps or narrow aisles unaccommodating to wheelchairs, but attitudinal barriers can be just as effective at keeping persons out.
Tell Them Why They’re There
Introductory comments include the purpose of the workshop. This can be as simple as helping individuals understand their concerns or hesitation in communicating with persons with disabilities and providing techniques to help improve interactions. It’s normal to be a little uncomfortable in unique situations or with persons that are different from you. Repeating ideas, giving examples and providing practice allows your listeners to become more familiar with the topic. Persons in the audience may not be aware that they have displayed inappropriate behaviors, because stereotypical attitudes are so widely accepted (Reynolds, 2010). This illustrates the sensitive nature of the problem, since the training may point out mistakes audience members have made in the past due to lack of knowledge.
Talk About Persons with Disabilities
Discuss symptoms and accommodations that are typically employed for persons with disabilities in whatever setting you are providing training. This might include reminding the attendees that two persons with the same diagnosis may not have the same symptoms. It is important to emphasize communication skills, and not lead your audience to think that one technique will work for every situation. There are no magic wands! It may be necessary to try more than one method before you are successful. For example, you may need to write notes and pantomime to communicate with a person who is deaf.
Along with descriptions of how disability conditions may differ, inform your audience that not all persons with disabilities may appreciate the effort being made. I was approached after providing communication training by a person who said he had practiced good etiquette for persons with disabilities in the past only to be spurned by them. Your seminar participants need to concentrate on displaying good behavior, regardless of what the customer does. Point out some of the hidden reasons why a customer might have unusual behavior. The person may be reacting to symptoms or side effects of medications, history of abuse or other legitimate distress. It’s often difficult to be sensitive if we don’t know or can’t see the reason for an incident.
Tell Them What They Can Do
In the workshop I helped design, basic behavior analysis concepts were introduced. No technical jargon is necessary, but it helps to point out that whatever one party does affects how the other party reacts. If you yell at me, I’m more likely to yell back at you. Mention that the training will help the audience understand how to advocate for their own personal rights, too. Some trainees privately fear that disability etiquette will result in them spending time with someone they did not want to, or having someone touch them or get too close. The workshop explains that it is okay to tell the other person “no.”
Practice is essential, but some participants might be hesitant to try out new behaviors. The trainer can improve their comfort level by indicating there is no one correct way of doing things and no question is insignificant. I give specific examples of mistakes I’ve made in the past and techniques that might have been more effective. This illustrates good and bad examples of conduct.
No matter what audience is targeted, disability awareness is high-quality customer service. “…benefits include better customer service, higher customer retention, higher revenue from satisfied customers, and reduced stress and disharmony among employees” (Hall, 2008, p.15). In part, it is the counselor’s responsibility as an expert to pave the way for community access as a liaison between the public and the person served.
Hall, E.W. (2008). Changing the way employees interact with guests with disabilities. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 19(1), 15-23.
Hall, J.P. and Parker, K. (2010). Stuck in a loop: Individual and system barriers for job seekers with disabilities. The Career Development Quarterly, 58, 246-256.
Reynolds, L. (2010). Aging and disability awareness training for drivers of a metropolitan taxi
Company. Activities, Adaptation & Aging, 34(1), 17-29.
Riolletta, F. & Nettlebeck, T. (2007). Effects of an awareness program on attitudes of students without an intellectual disability towards persons with an intellectual disability. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 32(1), 19-27.
Jill D. Flansburg received a BS degree in psychology from the University of Iowa, an MA degree in counselor education from the University of South Florida, and is currently a Ph.D. student in counselor education at the University of South Florida with a concentration in career counseling and industrial/organizational psychology. She has 25 years of practical experience as a career counselor and supervisor in the private non-profit, vocational rehabilitation sector, and is nationally certified as a vocational evaluator and a rehabilitation counselor. She has counseled persons with various disability conditions, at-risk youth, welfare recipients, Workers Compensation claimants, Social Security beneficiaries, older workers and privately referred individuals. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org