Our organization is in charge of remodeling a facility for an organization that serves disabled people. We recently held a client briefing outlining our plans and experienced an awkward incident. One of our representatives came into the room to meet with the client group and was shaking hands until he realized that the man next in line had a deformed hand. At that point, our representative stopped shaking hands and didn’t know what to do.
We’ve asked our contact person at the agency for guidance and were told, “Act normally and treat all of us as you’d like to be treated.” We understand this idea, but think we should still apologize. How do we do that without adding to the embarrassment?
Also, what else should we look out for? For example, we normally present a detailed PowerPoint presentation, but one member of the client group is blind. Do we eliminate the PowerPoint because of this? Could you give us some guidelines?
Your contact gave you good instructions — to treat your clients as clients and not focus on their disabilities. Your clients have had years to develop coping strategies for handling problem situations and individuals caught off guard. If you make a mistake, genuinely apologize.
Here’s how to understand the handshake incident. If you meet a group of people and shake the hands of all but one them, you exclude and embarrass the person whose hand you don’t shake. If you’re shaking everyone’s hand, and one of your clients has a deformed or prosthetic hand, offer a handshake. If the client’s right hand is missing, offer your left hand.
Provide the PowerPoint presentation, however, when you do so cover the highlights orally. If you’re part of a several-member group speaking to a blind client, identify yourself each time before you speak until the blind person learns to recognize your voice. You can say, “I’m Lynne, and here are my thoughts.”
When you’re talking to a deaf person accompanied by an interpreter, face the deaf person when speaking, and make contact if they’re looking directly at you. Not only can many deaf individuals lip-read, but you’re having a conversation with the deaf person and not the interpreter.
If you’re speaking with someone with impaired speech and you don’t understand what was said, don’t fake it. Instead, ask, “Could you repeat that?” By asking for it to be said again you show that you respect what the person might say.
When talking with a client in a wheelchair, sit. If you stand, the person has to look up at you, which is tiring. If a client using a wheelchair exits a room at the same time as you do, don’t touch it or push it unless you’ve offered help that has been accepted. Consider the wheelchair an extension of the person’s body and don’t invade their extended personal space.
© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ” Beating the Workplace Bully” and ” Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com