Hi, I’m Your New Colleague And I Have A Disability

by Alvan Yap

Screenshot of email window

Every person with a disability who is job-hunting – in Singapore’s fiercely competitive labour market, never an easy task even for the non-disabled – has agonised over these questions:

“Do I reveal my disability in my CV?”

“Or only during the interview?”

Or, for those with invisible disabilities: “Should I keep it a secret?” (This isn’t an option for those with visible physical or sensory disabilities.)

Of course, for civil service, government-linked and certain private sector positions, you have no choice – their job application form asks for seemingly every personal detail, including your siblings’ names, ages and occupations, previous criminal convictions, medical issues and, yes, whether you have a disability. (Incidentally, it is illegal to ask such intrusive, non-job-related questions in countries such as Australia, UK and USA.)

But, say, you manage to get the job. Now the question changes a little: “How do I tell my colleagues and/or clients and customers?” and “Do I even need to let them know so explicitly?”

The answer isn’t so straightforward. You need to assess your own, unique situation. In an equal-opportunity company and disability-friendly work culture, why not? Being frank about your disability and letting your co-workers know what it involves in terms of accommodations at the workplace, and what it means in communicating and moving around, and so on would make things easier both for you and your colleagues.

It also helps reduce misunderstandings and misconceptions, especially if the people you work with have no or little exposure to your particular disability. This benefits everyone.

(But I wish to make it clear this is not to say every employee with a disability should be so forthcoming. It depends. The extreme scenario: In some companies with supervisors or staff who are not so open-minded, being so honest may cause you to lose your job. In others, you may face more subtle forms of discrimination such as being awarded lower pay for the same job scope, or getting slower promotions, if at all. That’s the reality, however we decry it as ugly or unfair.)

Let’s look at three examples of introductory emails sent by people with disabilities – autism, visual impairment and hearing impairment – to their fellow workers.

The upsides of emailing one’s colleagues are:

  • They have a written record, which they can easily refer to, of your medical condition/disability, and get to know the adjustments they need to make (you will, of course, still need to interact with them face to face).
  •  It also saves time and energy by sparing you the tedium of having to recount every detail of your disability/accommodations needed to every colleague/client you meet at work.

Note the following are real, unedited emails; only the names have been changed. I’ll like to thank the contributors for granting permission to republish their emails here.

And if you wish to do likewise, do adapt the emails for yourself, and not copy it wholesale. Disabilities occur on a spectrum, and it is highly unlikely the contents of the emails fit your circumstances perfectly. You may also want to structure your email this way: Who you are, position in company, your disability (what it means in medical, social, communication, etc terms), what accommodations you need, tips for working better with you.

Read on!

***

* Employee With Autism *

Dear friends,

It had been a great first month for me in our big family.

I am very happy you invited me to lunch sessions. I like all of you friends! You allow me, a greenhorn, to add on the business know-how and daily updates of the world in general. I am also really excited with the jokes I laugh at – I am sure you share my excitement. I think most of you like the way I smile and cheer up your day.

I do consciously know, though, that I may ‘feel’ weird.

I may behave like a spoilt brat or a loafer. I seem to daze around often. I may speak to myself at the desk. I may be easily distracted by the smell of food or loud sounds. I may repeat a few words unintentionally and unknowingly. I may unknowingly interrupt others while you are engaged in some interesting conversation I would like to join in, but not really adept enough to join in.

Also, in work, despite what I learnt in school, I may find it difficult to follow instructions if it’s not clear-cut – something essential in our line of work. I may need you to repeat instructions over and over again.

I am not really misbehaving. I do not choose to misbehave, even though I try to.

I have autism. Autism is a difference I have.

I may not be able to interact or socialize the way most people do. It is just me.

I try to do my best doing what is best for my job performance. I keep trying.

However, with the fantastic support I received in this company, I am sure I will have a fruitful time with the company.

Have a great day ahead!

Cheers,
Arjun

***

* Employee With Visual Impairment *

Dear all,
I am Aimei. You probably have met me before. I thought I take some time to write to you to explain some things about working with me.

I am Visually Handicapped or Visually Impaired or Visually Challenged or in very simple words, I’m blind. I am unable to read print so giving me a piece of paper with words in an enlarged font won’t help.

I will appreciate that all materials can be in the soft copy format so I can read with the aid of my screen-reader installed on my laptop. Unless the printer/copier talks, I won’t be able to operate them by myself.

Next, to get my attention, either tap me gently or call my name. This will be especially helpful if you need me to speak, just looking at my direction has no effect on me. Likewise, pointing and gesturing won’t work. Be more precise when describing. Try to avoid “It’s here”, “Over there”. Letting me know position of things relative to the surrounding things is very helpful. “The button is next to the emergency button, to its left”. “The cupboards are to the right of the wall” etc.

Most of the time, I won’t know who I am speaking to so you might like to identify yourself as an introduction. A “Hello” or a “Hi” is not really enough for me to recognise you.

Please don’t move the furniture around. I need to use them as a reference point. If there is really a need to move them, please let me know. At the same time, please do not move items which are on my table.

Talking about using objects as reference point, don’t worry if I purposefully walk into objects like wall/plants/pillar and what have you. When my white cane hits them, my mind is processing the information I am given so I can decide how to proceed from there. You can offer your help by giving me verbal instructions or nudging me to the right way if I veer off course. Usually, just let me try on my own.

I am very grateful whenever someone is willing to guide me. Gently make contact with the back of my hand so I know where is the offered arm. If the place we are walking to is quite narrow, bring the arm which is guiding me behind your back. In this case, we are walking in a single file. Do provide me with audio cues like “We are turning left/right”, “We are going up/down some steps”. I can either walk up/down with you or you can let me follow the railings.

Put my hands on the back of the chair so I can find the seat. For chairs without a back, put my hands on the seat itself.

Please inform me if you need to step away for a while. If not, I might end up talking to myself because I cannot see you walking away.

Thank you for your kind understanding.

Aimei

***

* Employee With Hearing Impairment *

Hi everybody,
Thank you for welcoming me to the company. This is a brief note to explain my deafness and how to minimise issues arising from it.

I wear a big ear piece, otherwise known as my cochlear implant.

This implant helps me to hear sounds better.

Unfortunately, the sounds I hear are not exactly the same as the sounds heard by people with normal hearing. Mine is a somewhat degraded version, with quite a lot of fidelity loss, so sounds/speech are not always comprehensible to me. That is, there are certain sounds in the human speech frequency range which I can’t catch, or my brain can’t understand or interpret properly.

(If this seems confusing, imagine someone speaking Latin or Greek to you. No matter how loudly the person speaks, you will not understand what he’s saying. Here, I’m assuming no one here understands these languages…if you do, let me know…. I’ll think of another analogy.)

**

So much for the theories. What does all these mean in practice?

* Sometimes, I can’t catch you the first time, or the second, or even the third. So I have to ask you to repeat what you say.

* I must maintain eye contact with you or, at the very least, be able to see your face in order to understand what you say.

This is also why I can’t understand speech over the phone, because I can’t see the person’s face at the other end of the line. (I can hear your voice fine on the phone, but I just cannot understand it. Maybe one fine day when our company starts using video phones, I may actually do video calls and pray the other person doesn’t aim the screen up his/her nostrils or some other unmentionable place while talking away…)

* Noisy places with lots of background noise — such as in the canteen during peak hour, beside a busy road, etc — kill me. It’s very difficult for me to understand speech in such situations. (My implant amplifies all sounds/noises, not just human voices.)

* I only understand English. All four tones of Mandarin, and all nine tones of Cantonese sound similar to me. Eg., dumplings or sleep (shui jiao) have the same mouth movements and sound the same to me.

**

Tips to improve communication with me:

* Get my attention first before starting a conversation with me. If I don’t respond to my name, feel free to wave or stand in front of me (of course this does not apply to certain situations like…. when I’m using the toilet).

* In a quiet room, on a one-to-one or small group basis, face to face, I do best. If you need to embark on a long, complex discussion with me, this is the ideal environment.

* If I repeatedly can’t catch what you say, rephrasing your sentence may help. Simple gestures and pointing, if possible, also are useful, especially for numbers or directions or sizes, etc.

* To make up for my non-existent phone skills, email or SMS me. Or if you wish to talk, just let me know, and I’ll be happy to go over to your desk.

* If I sound unintelligible, please don’t be shy, and ask me to repeat. I’ll speak slower and concentrate on speaking clearer as well.

Do feel free to ask me if you have any questions.

Ahmad

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