By Anna Johansson • January 24, 2019•Careers, Other Career Issues
Eventually, you’ll likely find yourself engaging with clients who have mental or physical disabilities that prevent them from being able to converse normally, or otherwise force them to interact with their environment in nontraditional ways. If you’re not used to engaging with people who have disabilities, this can pose a challenge; how can you meet their needs while simultaneously remaining professional and getting all the information you need to do your job?
One of the easiest steps you can take is ensuring that your office is physically accessible for people who have physical disabilities. For example, if you have a parking lot outside your building, you should have wheelchair accessible spaces available. You should have a level entrance into your facility, and accessible paths to get to your office. Including more signage, and wheelchair accessible bathrooms can also help here.
Next, you’ll want to think about the level of technological accessibility you offer. Modern attorneys will be using tech to engage with clients on a regular basis, sending and receiving emails, forwarding PDFs and digital files, and possibly making use of apps for ongoing file management and/or communication. But if it’s especially difficult for some people to access or rely on digital devices. If they have visual disabilities, they may not be able to easily read or process information they see on a screen. If they have motor skill difficulty, they may not be able to use smart devices easily.
You can provide more technological accessibility by offering multiple options for engaging with your materials, including hard copies of files when necessary. You can also choose apps that have multiple options for communication, and/or keyboard shortcuts that make engagement simpler for participants.
Correct for Your Biases
Most people hold internal biases or misconceptions about people with intellectual disabilities, and it’s important to acknowledge and correct for those biases so you can engage with your client fairly and appropriately. For example, it’s easy to assume that people who display intellectual disabilities are unable to think critically, or are unable to feel emotions like able people, but in reality, they may simply take more time to come up with an answer, or may experience even stronger emotions than other people. The more time you spend with people with disabilities, the less likely these biases will be to appear.
React Appropriately to Unfamiliar Behaviors
People with intellectual disabilities may not be able to handle their emotions as appropriately as someone without those disabilities; for example, when they feel frustration or confusion, they may not be able to express that frustration or confusion (or even understand those feelings). In rare cases, this may lead to an outburst or a series of actions that would be unacceptable from any other client.
In these cases, your response can make things better or make things much worse. Responding with impatience or a lack of empathy can make the client even more frustrated or confused, while taking your time and remaining calm can facilitate a much more relaxing, controlled atmosphere where your client can return to their baseline.
Choose Your Words Carefully
You’ve likely already considered this, but you’ll need to choose your words carefully when working with disabled clients. When working with people who have intellectual disabilities or limitations, you’ll want to avoid using complex technical jargon that they may not be able to learn or understand.
Perhaps more importantly, you’ll need to learn which terms are appropriate when describing or referring to disabilities—especially if you’re representing them in a case that warrants an active description of the disability. For example, it’s much preferred to use a term like “wheelchair user” or “person who uses a wheelchair” than one like “wheelchair-bound” or “confined to a wheelchair.” Small changes like these can make your clients feel much more comfortable, and provide you with language that conveys a much more accurate description.
You may not work with clients with disabilities on a frequent or regular basis, but it still pays to hone your skills and create an environment where you can serve them more appropriately. Take the time to learn more about the people you’re working with, and do what you can to make sure your physical office, your methods of communication, and your digital interactions are accessible as possible to the widest range of prospective clients. Your business will benefit from the extra effort.