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How to Deal With Mentally Disabled Co-workers

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If you work with someone who has a mental disability, you may worry you’ll inadvertently offend him or behave in a way that makes him feel inferior or excluded. Though it can be confusing, interacting with a colleague who has a mental disability comes to down to treating him with the same respect, professionalism and courtesy you’d extend to other co-workers.

Understand Him

If you know your co-worker’s diagnosis, learn as much as you can about his condition and how it might affect his job performance or his interaction with others. For example, some people with a mental disability have difficulty concentrating when there’s a great deal of noise or activity. It might also hinder their social skills, causing them to do or say things others consider unprofessional or inappropriate for the workplace. By understanding your colleague, you can determine how to interact with him in a way that’s respectful but also takes into account his unique challenges or needs.

Have Patience

In many cases, employees with a mental disability can perform the same duties as other employees; however, they may sometimes need special accommodations. If your co-worker has difficulty understanding you, you may have to repeat yourself or rephrase what you said. If you’re giving him instructions, you might need to show him how to do something rather than tell him. You might also need to walk him through the process the first few times until he gets the hang of it and can manage on his own.

Treat Them Equally

While you want to be mindful of the differences between your colleague and other employees, you don’t want to draw attention to these differences or the challenges he faces. Interact with him as you would the rest of your co-workers. Don’t avoid him out of fear that you’ll say or do the wrong thing. If you make small talk with the rest of your colleagues, say hello to him as well. Similarly, don’t be afraid to give him instructions or call him on inappropriate behavior. If he violates company policy or doesn’t complete a task correctly, take the same action you would with another employee.

Respect Independence

It might be your first instinct to offer assistance to a colleague who has a mental disability, especially if he appears to be struggling with a task or assignment. However, he might interpret this as a sign you don’t think he’s capable of fulfilling his job duties. Only step in if it’s clear your colleague needs help or if he asks. If you do offer, don’t insist. If he refuses, back off but let him know you’re available if he needs anything. If he accepts your help, don’t take over or do the task for him. Instead, ask him how you can help and let him take the lead.

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Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images