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Different Connections-Working With Colleagues and Donors with Disabilities

Resource Center - Foundation

Jennis Watson has been contributing to the nonprofit sector for more than ten years and currently serves as development manager for the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, a regional volunteer-powered nonprofit committed to environmental conservation. Jennis holds a bachelor's degree in English, a master's degree in biblical literature and a master's degree in nonprofit management. Outside of her work, Jennis is actively involved with Theta Nu Xi Multicultural Sorority, Inc.

Jennies Watson 

Jennis and her husband.

Today as many as 20 percent of Americans and 17 percent of Canadians are living with disabilities—and I’m one of them. I have sustained two traumatic brain injuries, one as a toddler and one as a teenager.  As you might imagine, injuries to the brain result in a myriad of challenges. My role as a fundraising professional brings out one of the lasting difficulties I have yet to overcome: memory recall.

In a field built on human connection, the inability to remember names and faces is a serious problem.  One of the ways I’ve found to succeed in spite of my disability has been to get to know people genuinely. It’s easier for me to remember a donor’s name when I find out her daughter attended the same university I did.

As a person with disabilities, I make it a point to understand how others with disabilities want to be treated. In my work, I come into contact with many people, some of whom have obvious disabilities and others who don’t. In all cases, conversations flow more smoothly when we make real connections with each other.

Many years ago, I found myself working closely with a man who was blind. I had attended a diversity seminar about working with individuals with disabilities prior to this encounter. So, when this man came to my office I knew what to do to make him feel welcome. I asked him if he would like to take my arm so we could go to my desk—this initial contact set a positive tone for the rest of the meeting.

For those of us who work in the field of development, taking the time to know what to do in unfamiliar situations can mean the difference between gaining a new supporter and offending a potential one.  Here are a few tips on how to become more comfortable working with individuals with disabilities.

1.)   To begin with, try reframing your understanding by changing the language. In place of “disability,” consider using other terms like “different abilities” or “diversities.” Recognizing the unique value of people who are different from us goes a long way to making our interactions more fruitful. 

2.)   A disability shouldn't have to be the elephant in the room.  Have you ever felt self-conscious after telling a blind person, “See you later?” Not to worry! Speaking naturally is always appropriate. For me, having a disability isn't embarrassing or uncomfortable. I don't mind telling people about it, and I don’t hesitate to speak up for myself when I need an accommodation. 

3.)   Use People-First language to emphasize the dignity of the individual. Some examples of People-First language include: people with disabilities instead of the disabled; accessible parking instead of handicapped parking; and individuals without disabilities instead of normal people

4.)   Offer assistance and accept the response you're given. While it may be tempting for a compassionate person to jump to the aid of someone who appears to need help, the assistance may not be welcome. Along the same lines, use common sense and good judgment when you’re interacting. If you meet a supporter who has use of his left hand but not his right, offer your left hand for a handshake.

5.)   Ask questions, but make sure your questions are relevant to the task at hand. Asking someone how he acquired a disability may not be welcome. However, asking questions about personal comfort when you aren't sure what to do will be helpful to both you and your colleague.

6.)   If you meet an individual with a companion, always direct your comments and questions to the individual herself, rather than to her companion. One of the most common instances of this type of situation occurs when you're working with a deaf person who is accompanied by an interpreter.

7.)   Situational awareness is important at all times and especially when it comes to individuals with different abilities. Not all disabilities are visible. Walking up a flight of stairs would be daunting for a person with muscular dystrophy or a person with severe asthma. Taking note of the physical and emotional comfort of your colleague will help you address challenges before they ever appear. For instance, even if you aren't aware of a disability, giving someone the option of "stairs or elevator" gives authority to your colleague to make the decision. Along the same lines, when approaching or leaving the presence of a blind person, always announce yourself. 

8.)   Go beyond the Golden Rule and embrace the Platinum Rule, which says “Treat others the way they want to be treated.” We are all different, and we have different needs. That goes for people with and without disabilities. As you get to know your co-worker or donor who has a disability, it will become easier to employ the Platinum Rule. 

9.)   Recognize that you too may need an accommodation when working with individuals with disabilities. For instance, if you have trouble understanding someone's speech, don't be embarrassed. Explain, "I'm having trouble understanding what you're asking.  Would you write it down for me?"

While these tips can be helpful, one thing matters most of all: be natural and be yourself.  As humans, we're inherently social beings—we all want to be appreciated and understood. When mistakes do happen, you can make things right by apologizing and asking for help. Then, next time you'll know just what to do.

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