Speaker shares advice for living with disability, working with disabled coworkers

By John Bell

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A manager from the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services shared her agency’s advice on what to do if you become disabled and offered tips for interacting courteously with people who have disabilities, in an Oct. 11 presentation at the McNamara Headquarters Complex.

The event was first in a series hosted by the Defense Logistics Agency and other HQC tenant agencies in celebration of National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

LaPearl Smith, who works for DARS as a business development manager, began by noting that at least three of America’s most famous presidents had disabilities. John F. Kennedy’s Navy service gave him back problems so serious he was on constant pain medication. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used a wheelchair throughout his presidency, as a result of polio. And Abraham Lincoln suffered from recurring severe depression.

Smith noted that 56 million people reported a disability in the latest Census. And their number is growing. “It only takes one event” to become disabled, she said.

Not far from the HQC, she recalled, the actor who became famous playing Superman, Christopher Reeve, became paralyzed in an equestrian event in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thus people with disabilities make up “one of very few minority groups one can join at any time,” Smith said.

If you become disabled, you should expect to have an emotional reaction including anger, frustration and resentment, she said. In addition, friends and coworkers may react differently to you from how they did before. Some may even seem uncomfortable with you. 

However, you will most likely adapt and overcome your new challenges, Smith said. And you may even achieve things you never expected.

To help that happen, people who are not disabled should learn good manners for interacting with disabled colleagues, Smith advised. Speaking directly to a deaf person rather than to the interpreter, resisting the urge to pet a working service dog and treating a wheelchair as part of its user’s personal space are all appreciated. So is using the currently accepted terms to describe disabilities.

Smith reminded the audience that per the Americans with Disabilities Act, workplace accommodations are available for employees with disabilities — and in more than half of cases cost the agency nothing. Of the remainder, the vast majority cost an agency less than $500, she said.

She emphasized that there are many people in the workforce whose disability is not readily noticeable. Depression is one of several such “hidden disabilities,” along with posttraumatic stress disorder, diabetes, heart problems, dyslexia and others, Smith noted. In fact, only 4 percent of disabilities are immediately apparent, she said.

PTSD, although common among those who have experienced combat, does not require someone to have even served in the military, she said. Any traumatic experience, whether an act of terrorism or a personal tragedy, can cause PTSD, Smith said.

The next event in the series is Oct. 19 at 10 o’clock, when a practicing psychologist will discuss “hidden disabilities” at the HQC’s Kabeiseman Center.