Strategies for Working with People who have Disabilities

Strategies, Transparency

Strategies for
Working with
People who have

There are many ways that disabilities can affect the ability to perform effectively on the job. Levels of disability and ability are unique to an individual. Most accommodations are simple, creative alternatives for traditional ways of doing things. This section includes examples and suggestions for career development staff and employers. Following these simple suggestions will help people with disabilities to fully participate in work-based learning experiences. They are by no means comprehensive. You and the interns with whom you work will have opportunities to generate uniquely effective ideas.

Disability Types, Transparency

Low Vision
Hearing Impairments
Speech Impairments
Specific Learning Disabilities
Mobility Impairments
Health Impairments
Psychiatric Disabilities

Low Vision

By "low vision" we are referring to people who have a visual impairment but have some usable sight. This includes some people who are "legally" blind. For people who have low vision, standard written materials may be too small to read and objects may appear blurry. Others may only see objects within a specific field of vision. Still others see images with sections missing or blacked out. Learning through a visual medium may take longer and may be more mentally fatiguing for people who have low vision than for people who do not.

Examples of accommodations for people with low vision include large print text, handouts, signs, and equipment labels. Many photocopy machines can enlarge text. Some people with low vision may also benefit from having career development publications, job instructions, or other printed materials recorded on audiotape. It may take weeks or months to procure materials in audiotape format. Consequently, it is essential that career counselors and employers select and prepare their materials well before they are needed.

Other examples of accommodations for people with low vision include providing seating where the lighting best meets their individual needs; making brochures, job announcements, and other information available in electronic format; and equipping computers with large monitors and screen enlargement software.

Low Vision, Transparency

Low Vision
  • Large print handouts, signs, equipment labels
  • Seating where the lighting is best
  • Work assignments in electronic format
  • Computer with enlarged screen images


[Amanda gets online] People who have not had vision since birth may have difficulty understanding verbal descriptions of visual materials and abstract concepts. Consider the example, "This organizational chart looks like an upside down tree." If one has never seen a tree, it may not be readily apparent that the structure of note has several lines which can be traced up to one central point. However, a person who lost her vision later in life may find this verbal description easy to understand. Additionally, demonstrations based on color differences may be more difficult for people with blindness to understand than demonstrations which emphasize changes in shape, temperature, or texture. During presentations, meetings, and job-site demonstrations, a clear, concise narration of the basic points being represented in visual aids is helpful.

People who have no sight cannot read written materials in standard formats. Ready access to printed materials on computer disks or via the Internet allow blind workers, who have the appropriate technology, to use computers to read text aloud and/or produce Braille. Some materials may need to be transferred to audiotape. Since it may take weeks or even months to procure specific materials in Braille or on audiotape, it is essential that career counselors and employers select and prepare materials that are needed by a worker who is blind well before the materials are going to be used.

Blindness, Transparency

  • Describe visual aids
  • Audiotaped, Braille, or electronic text to substitute printed materials
  • Raised-line drawings and tactile models of graphic materials
  • Adaptive equipment (e.g. tactile timers, calculators)
  • Computers with optical character readers, voice output, Braille screen displays, braille printers

Other examples of accommodations for people who are blind include the provision of tactile models and raised-line drawings of graphic materials; adaptive equipment, such as talking calculators and tactile timers; and computers with optical character readers, voice output, Braille screen displays, and Braille printers.

In communicating with a worker who is blind, it is important to remember that the visual impairment does not affect his ability to think or to hear. Speak in a normal tone. In addition, consider the following suggestions.

Hearing Impairments

Some people who have hearing impairments may hear at a functional level with the assistance of amplification devices such as hearing aids. Others hear only specific frequencies, sounds within a certain volume range, or nothing at all.

Hearing Impairments, Transparency

Hearing Impairments
  • Interpreters, real-time captions, FM systems, note takers
  • Electronic mail
  • Visual aids, visual warning systems for emergencies
  • Face intern when speaking. Talk to the intern rather than the interpreter.
  • Written work assignments
  • Repeat questions and statements from other employees during meetings

Individuals with hearing impairments often use some combination of lip-reading, sign language, and amplification to understand spoken information. People who are deaf from birth generally have more difficulty speaking and understanding the structure of language than those who lost their hearing later in life. In a job setting, everyday noises -- fans and lights -- that are not a bother to hearing people, may have a profound effect on the ability of people with hearing impairments to hear. Career development providers and employers should make worksite adjustments to allow interns or employees to maximize their learning potential and success.

Individuals with hearing impairments may have difficulty following instructions when delivered in large and open settings, particularly if the acoustics cause echoes or if the speaker talks quietly, rapidly, or unclearly. They may find it difficult to simultaneously watch demonstrations and follow verbal descriptions if they are watching a sign language interpreter, a "real-time" captioning screen, or a speaker's lips. It may also be difficult for them to follow or participate in group discussions, particularly when they are fast-paced and unmodulated, since there is often lag time between a speaker's comments and their interpretation to people with hearing impairments.

Examples of accommodations for people who have hearing impairments include the provision of interpreters, sound amplification systems, note takers, visual aids, and electronic mail for meetings and office discussions. Visual warning systems for emergencies may also need to be installed.

The following suggestions can be employed when employers and career counselors communicate with a worker who has a hearing impairment.

Speech Impairments

Speech Impairments, Transparency
Speech Impairments
  • Electronic mail
  • Concentrate on what the person is saying
  • If you don't understand, ask and repeat back
  • Take as much time as necessary to communicate
  • Ask questions that require short answers or a nod of the head when appropriate

Some disabilities affect the ability to speak. Computer-based speech output systems provide an alternative voice for some people who cannot speak. Since electronic mail does not require the ability to speak, it provides an efficient medium for communication. The following suggestions will assist employers and career counselors in working with an intern who has a speech impairment.

Specific Learning Disabilities

Because a person does not use a wheelchair, have hearing aids, or use a cane does not mean that she does not have a disability. Some disabilities are invisible. These include specific learning disabilities. Individuals with specific learning disabilities generally have average to above average intelligence, but may have difficulties demonstrating knowledge and understanding abstract concepts. Auditory, visual, or tactile information can become jumbled at any point when it is transmitted, received, processed, and re-transmitted. It may take longer for some people who have learning disabilities to process written information. Lengthy reading or writing assignments or tasks may be difficult to complete in a standard amount of time. Some people may be able to organize and communicate their thoughts in one-to-one conversations, but find it difficult to articulate those same ideas at a noisy worksite.

Learning Disabilities, Transparency

Learning Disabilities
  • Audiotaped instruction
  • Quiet workstation
  • Visual, aural, and tactile demonstrations incorporated into directions
  • Computers with voice output, spell checkers, grammar checkers, thesaurus, specialized software

Examples of accommodations for people who have learning disabilities include audiotaped instructions; a quiet workstation location; visual, aural, and tactile demonstrations incorporated into directions; and computers with voice output and spelling and grammar checkers. Also be aware of environmental factors that tend to distract people. Avoid placing people who are easily distracted near high traffic areas and consider seat, window, and door placement in relation to them. Provide a quiet place for them to work.

The following suggestions will assist career services staff and employers in working with an intern who has a learning disability.

Mobility Impairments

Mobility Impairments, Transparency
Mobility Impairments
  • Office assistants
  • Group work assignments, note takers/scribes
  • Accessible worksite
  • Adjustable tables, equipment located within reach
  • Work assignments in electronic format
  • Computers with special input devices (e.g., voice, Morse code, alternative keyboards)

Mobility impairments range from lower body impairments, which may require use of canes, walkers, or wheelchairs, to upper body impairments, which may result in limited or no use of the hands. It may take longer for individuals with mobility impairments to get from one worksite to another. It may require special accommodations for them to get to field worksites or off-site meetings. Some people with mobility impairments find it difficult or impossible to manipulate objects, turn pages, write with a pen or pencil, type at a keyboard, or retrieve work-related documents without accommodations.

Examples of accommodations for interns and employees with mobility impairments include the provision of office assistants for specific tasks, accessible office locations, adjustable tables, equipment located within reach, work-related materials available in electronic format, and access to job-related resources on the Internet. Computers can be equipped with special devices such as voice input, Morse code input, and alternative keyboards. Job-related items need to be able to be reached and accessed, and wheelchairs and walkers need space. Avoid clutter and maintain a well-organized worksite.

The following suggestions will assist career services staff and employers in working with a person who has a mobility impairment.

Health Impairments

Health Impairments, Transparency
Health Impairments
  • Flex time
  • Note takers, audiotaped meetings
  • Electronic mail
  • Work assignments in electronic format
  • Telecommuting

Some health conditions and medications affect memory and/or energy levels. Additionally, some people who have health impairments may not be able to work full-time or on a daily basis. Part-time employment will be an important option for some people with health impairments. Be flexible and work to establish a reasonable schedule with workers who have health impairments.

Be aware that some health impairments are chronic and stable while others are sporadic (e.g., severe allergies) and require flexible and variable accommodations. Modify your placements, assignments, and/or methods to accommodate sporadic attendance. Additionally, allow for people with health impairments to take time off during the work day to take medication, have a snack (e.g., for a person who is diabetic), rest, or meet with professionals. They may also need access to a refrigerator to store food supplements or medication.

Be aware of medications that people may be taking and their potential physical, emotional, and cognitive effects. This is particularly important for people taking medications for conditions such as seizure disorders and diabetes.

Observe employees or interns with health impairments to determine if there are times during the day when they are more productive. Observe changes in moods, attitudes, quality of work, or general health. Report concerns to appropriate supervisory personnel.

Examples of accommodations for individuals who have health impairments include the provision of note takers and/or taped instruction; flexible attendance requirements; assignments available in electronic format; and electronic mail for staff meetings, office discussions, and distribution of jobsite materials and notes. Telecommuting is sometimes a reasonable option for people with health impairments.

Psychiatric Disabilities

Psychiatric Disabilities, Transparency
Psychiatric Disabilities
  • Be positive
  • Have high expectations
  • Be consistent
  • Make instructions clear
  • Provide positive feedback and suggestions
  • Meet with the person

People who have psychiatric disabilities are not always considered mentally ill. A person with an psychiatric disability may need to be provided with unique on-the-job accommodations to prevent from exacerbating behaviors that are not appropriate in the work environment. Applying the following suggestions will assist career services staff and employers in working with an intern or employee with a psychiatric disability.


To conclude this discussion of strategies, here are some general suggestions for making career services offices and work-based learning programs accessible to all students.

General Suggestions, Transparency

General Suggestions
  • Have policies and procedures in place
  • Make sure facility is accessible
  • Provide clear signage in large print
  • Talk with the worker
  • Select materials early

When working with a person who has a disability, keep in mind that we are all more alike than different. Each person comes to a new job with unique skills and abilities. Internships allow all students to build on current competencies while gaining new skills that relate to their academic and career goals. People who interact with people who have disabilities have a great impact on their on-the-job success. Many employers use team work environments to maximize the potentials of their employees; this structure allows employees to work together to maximize individual strengths while compensating for weaknesses.

Expect that people with disabilities participating in a work-based learning experience are there to succeed. Keep your expectations high. Be positive and proactive in helping them achieve success. Career counselors and employers who follow the succeeding suggestions can help students with disabilities accomplish just that.