top of page
  • Saskia Müller

10 Ways to Support Your Disabled Colleague

My biggest weakness is asking for help.

Having been diagnosed with AuDHD at age 15, I grew up feeling inadequate without understanding why, struggling in silence to do 'normal' things. Ironically, this made me extremely resourceful and resilient, but only because I had to be - nobody else was going to help me. The cost of this was my self-worth, and health, with regular burnout.

Understanding this wasn't my fault by being diagnosed didn't magically improve things. Despite understanding I deserved help, I felt like linking this to my neurodiversity was admitting being inherently inadequate, confirmation of the imposter syndrome I already felt.

Being diagnosed with something doesn't mean we necessarily understand it. If we've been struggling at work in silence for years, despite doing 'well', suddenly asking for help can feel extremely conflicting. This is even more complicated if 'official' processes are involved, such as HR, or if there's no clear procedure in place.

There's often fear on both sides which largely stems from vulnerability and a lack of knowledge. As disabilities trigger legal responsibilities, employers may react impersonally, despite wanting to help - especially if they don't know how to respond. It can feel as though your deeply difficult plea for help is treated like an expense request, passed along the bureaucratic chain of command. Every conversation can feel like another person judging whether your diagnosis makes you incapable of doing your entire job - it can be terrifying to experience.

I recently had an unbelievably positive workplace assessment which proved that all that is required in these situations is an open, vulnerable conversation. If you're in a position of authority over someone asking for help, here are some ideas on how you can make the world of difference to them in such conversations:

  1. Make clear that it's a good thing someone's asked for help, and reassure them about any worry they may feel at the start of any conversation, and check they're feeling okay to go ahead. This might be especially relevant for format (e.g a person may feel more comfortable to discuss this on the phone rather than in person, but only realise this once they're there). The aim is to ensure the person feels as comfortable as possible.

  2. Reassure the person that support is available, and this conversation is just to mutually understand what might help them. Check for any diversity & inclusion, reasonable adjustments, or other relevant policies, and read them if they exist!* You can also signpost to Access to Work, which is Government funding to support people with health conditions at work, such as by job coaching, disability awareness training for employees, mental health support and personal support workers.

  3. Explain the processes involved and the role of yourself and others, including that it will be kept confidential, in a reassuring and clear way. Providing this in writing to the person afterwards, with timeframes, is very helpful, even if there's a policy in place.

  4. Empathetically listen to and validate the person's experiences without judging them. Ask questions compassionately, avoid comparing their experiences to yours or others, and simply acknowledge what they've been through, without giving advice or commenting. (Worst thing to possibly say: 'isn't everyone a little [insert disability] though?')

  5. Do your own research on any condition being disclosed, and make clear that you're still learning, and taking responsibility of trying to understand how you can best help. I had a manager of a person who'd disclosed ADHD at work call me to understand how she could help her employee, which was so incredible, as it can be a very isolating experience. Remember every single person's experience will be very different, and health is holistic: struggles outside of work can very much impact our experience at work, such as being unable to sleep!

  6. Ask the person how they'd prefer you address their condition and ensure they feel able to speak up about any language that doesn't feel right to them. I've felt embarrassed and invalidated when people tried to talk to me about my disabilities without mentioning it once, only referring to 'my medical condition'. However, everybody may be different, and language can feel very conflicting, especially relating to disability, so please do ask.

  7. Ask the person about the challenges they've experienced, making clear that they will not be treated negatively as a result of anything they say. Ask if they have any ideas of what may help address these challenges, whilst making clear they're not expected to know, and make any suggestions that come to mind. Asking them what they'd like to happen next (e.g being referred to Occupational Health and explaining what this would involve).

  8. Reassure the person that it's normal to experience challenges at work, but this doesn't make them any less capable of doing their job than other people, and that reasonable adjustments aren't "special treatment". They're just levelling up the playing field, and it's in the employer's interests to ensure everybody is able to work to the best of their abilities - it's not a burden. Highlight their strengths and successes, particularly in contrast to the challenges they may be experiencing, and reassure them of their value.

  9. Agree when and how check-ins will happen, clearly establishing that this has nothing to do with a person's work performance, but only to do with their wellbeing. Sometimes support may not work out as envisaged, and it's vital that a person understands how they can raise this again without feeling as though that was their only chance.

  10. Check with the person that they understand everything properly, including next steps, ask if they want a written summary of notes, and ensure they have everything they need by leaving time for questions. Thank them for being brave enough to ask for help.

I can't understate how valuable this is to a person who is struggling at work. From the second a person discloses a disability, they may be feeling 'fight or flight' anxiety, worrying about the future of their entire career, which is helpful to remember! Everybody deserves to be supported at work to do the best job they possibly can with what they have available to them.

Helping someone to access the help they need to do their job in the most sustainable, effective and healthy way for them isn't weak - it's strong. Being kind and compassionate doesn't mean you're giving them special treatment, it means you're validating their experiences and accepting them for who they are.

If you need support, asking for help does not make you incapable, inadequate or an imposter, and by getting the help you need, you'll understand that it should never have been this difficult for you. Being supported properly doesn't make you any less brilliant at your job or undermine any of your achievements so far, it simply empowers you to be the happiest and healthiest version of yourself at work.

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page