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Disability in the workplace: overcoming difficulties and building resilience

Brianne Turk

Careers Commentator
Strategies for success at work - helpful tips and resources for people with disability.

Work can be tough – dealing with a multitude of demands, managers, colleagues and clients. Add to that the unique challenges of your disability and you may find some days particularly difficult. Here are a few strategies to get you through your day.

1. Pause

The experience of disability is unique, and those around you are often unaware of how their actions and words affect you. If you experience an interaction that leaves you feeling uncomfortable, take a moment to steady yourself. Some fresh air, a walk or a cup of tea might do the trick. We’re not suggesting that you forget or excuse the behaviour; the person may need to be held accountable. Just pause and regain your composure, so you can think through the most effective and professional course of action.

2. When the time’s right, make it a teachable moment

Is there something that can be done to minimise this issue? Can you solve it so that it never happens again? If so, clearly and respectfully assert your needs – communicating what the issue is and what actions need to be taken to resolve it. This might include explaining to managers why a particular process disadvantages you, or educating your team on how to respectfully get your attention due to a hearing impairment. When delivered in the spirit of educating rather than ‘telling-off’, this guidance is often met with respect and appreciation. It assists others to work with you in a way that develops positive interactions and outcomes.

3. Talk about it

Regardless of what means you use to communicate, talk to someone about your concerns. Sometimes you’ll just need to vent to a friend and other times you’ll need to go directly to your boss. Addressing concerns with a therapist or social worker can also be extremely beneficial. The experience of disability is often compounded by many other challenges, and for some people it can feel quite isolating. If you are in crisis or would like mental health support, contact Lifeline, Headspace or Beyond Blue.

4. Utilise support services

There are countless services available that offer employment support for individuals with disability. You can request extra training to nut out new systems, obtain a workplace assessment to determine new adjustments or receive confidential advice on employment disputes. Be your own advocate and get proactive about your needs.

5. Implement self care

Work-life balance plays a key role in maintaining mental health, making you happier and more productive at work. Whichever self-care practices you utilise, implement them routinely – not just during difficult times. Listen to your favourite band, read a book, catch up with mates, get a massage, do some exercise, have a good belly-laugh, meditate, grab a beer or head away for the weekend. Take the time to care for yourself. If you don’t, who will?

6. Get inspired

If you’re in a bit of a rut, it might be helpful to hear the thoughts and experiences of other people who experience disability. Join an online community, watch some TED talks, grab an autobiography or listen to a podcast.

We can recommend:

  • Marlee Matlin’s autobiography I’ll scream later
  • Jenny O’Keefe’s podcast Fully Sick
  • BBC Radio’s podcast and website Ouch: Disability talk
  • Susan Robinson’s TED talk How I fail at being disabled
  • Elise Roy’s TED talk When we design for disability we all benefit
  • Phil Hansen’s TED talk Embrace the shake
  • Rosie King’s TED talk How autism freed me to be myself   

It’s also comforting to see employers who are kicking goals with their diversity and inclusion practices. You can discover Jeremy Kwok’s journey at PwC here.

7. Build resilience

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity, and it can pull you through a workplace crisis. It’s a learned skill rather than an innate trait, which means that you can actively develop it. Cool huh?

To do this, foster positive relationships that provide support, reassurance and the opportunity to problem solve. You want to create a support network that you can trust and rely on. Next, focus on developing flexibility and adaptability, so you’re comfortable to take alternate routes when a roadblock appears. These are skills that people with disability have been developing their entire lives. From here, you want to get realistic about your challenges and see the bigger picture. Practice acknowledging things for what they are: a bad day, a colleague who lacks the ability to put themselves in your shoes, or an issue of discrimination that could be addressed at the employer level (rather than heading straight to the Australian Human Rights Commission).

Considering the bigger picture allows you to see an issue as temporary or as only impacting one aspect of your life, making it easier to accept. Finally, find purpose and meaning in your life. This means different things to different people; some people focus on long-term goals, while others trust in worldviews such as ‘I only get given what I can handle’. Play around and see what works for you. As you actively grow your resilience, you’ll be better equipped to cope with challenges.

It’s not always on you

Just because we’ve discussed ways you can overcome difficulties, doesn’t mean that the ownership to rise above every challenge is on you. Sometimes bad behaviour is exactly that – bad behaviour – and it needs to be called out. Sometimes managers need to step up; policy needs to change. Sometimes the issues you’re dealing with have nothing to do with work at all, and are part of the process of accepting disability. And that is okay. Sometimes bad days are just bad days. For more information about disability rights in the workplace, read this article at Prosple Australia.