14

I am aware that mental disabilities are a touchy subject. The Irish National Disability Authority has released a guide which states that "intellectually disabled" is a proper term to use.


Someone in my family works for the local government, specifically the warehouse regarding material distribution for office supplies. The local government is very keen on providing job opportunities for people with disabilities, such as blind or deaf people.

My family member works together with a young man in his 20's, who is intellectually disabled. He struggles to understand complex instructions, and often gets lost when doing simple tasks. For example, he could be told to bring a pack of fresh printing paper to the 5th floor, room A512. He would write that down on his phone, take the paper, then leave.

30 minutes later, he is seen standing around on the second floor, watching videos on his phone. When asked what he is doing, he says he doesn't know. When asked where the printing paper is, he says he doesn't know.

My family member and their co-workers have tried the following:

  • Constantly supervise their disabled co-worker. This only works to a degree, as most of the tasks don't need to be carried out by multiple people. It would be just as effective, if not more so, to just send one other co-worker to do a job.
  • Ignore their disabled co-worker. This seems to be the default most of the time. The obvious downside is that on paper, they have more staff than is actually available to carry out most tasks. This results in more stress for everyone else.
  • Bring it up to the supervisor. This was met with "What do you want me to do?" in a very dismissive tone. He does not seem interested in finding a solution for this. Perhaps, in his eyes, as long as the paper ends up where it needs to be, there is no problem.

Is there anything my family member and their co-workers could do?

40

Be nice to him, patient. He has enough problems and deserves respect for trying and not blowing up with frustration every day.

Limitations like this are usually well known when hiring and they're not really expected to perform very well.

Make him as useful as possible, just don't expect him to do anything unsupervised, however simple. So obviously don't send him for paper again. Eventually he'll settle into something he can handle. He's not going anywhere so make the best of it.

  • While I generally understand what you are trying to say, I don't really see what kind of behavior to recommend to my family member. Should they keep giving him tasks? Or should they not? – Lucas F. Feb 14 at 11:43
  • 2
    @LucasF. sure, make him as useful as possible, just don't expect him to do anything unsupervised, however simple. So obviously don't send him for paper again. – Kilisi Feb 14 at 11:45
  • 1
    Thank you, I guess that's really the only way to go about it. I'll leave the question open for a while, just in case others want to add their two cents. Otherwise I'll mark this as accepted. – Lucas F. Feb 14 at 11:46
  • 1
    @JoeStrazzere The general tone is "Figure it out". You have to understand in government work, just because somebody has a responsibility on paper does not mean that they actually feel responsible for it. Quite many people are just there to collect a paycheck at the end of the month without performing any actual work. – Lucas F. Feb 14 at 12:43
  • 3
    @Michael what problem? There isn't one. Just too high expectations, lower the expectations, problem dissappears. – Kilisi Feb 14 at 23:50
27

Try something else than writing the instructions into his phone.

If he forgets where to bring the printing paper and tries to look it up in the phone, he gets distracted and cannot remember what he wanted to do.

Try something like always writing the instructions on a (red or yellow, some bright color) piece of paper. Maybe he is able to learn that if he does not know what to do, he only has to look on this paper.

And perhaps you can convince him not to bring his phone to work so he cannot be distracted.

New contributor
sisee is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • 4
    I like this idea, maybe even offer to accompany him on a task a few times, see if after that he can carry it on its own. – Tymoteusz Paul Feb 14 at 13:11
  • Thank you, I'll certainly suggest this. – Lucas F. Feb 14 at 13:16
  • That would have been my answer too. I'd never get the idea to write that into my phone - pull it out of the pocket, unlock it, find and open some app, type the room... then the same procedure to find this information - this is way too complicated. And it can make you get los in messages and videos. – puck Feb 14 at 16:57
  • 5
    Simple written instructions can be as little as the room number on a label attached/taped to each package that needs to be delivered. They don't need to know what, to who or why - just this thing with a room number on it goes to that room. Using professional looking labels and using them when others need to deliver items would reduce any stigma associated with their use. – Brian Feb 14 at 16:58
  • @Brian especially since office-use label printers (which would be enough for this case) are not expensive - a handheld one with a keyboard is sub 100€. Perhaps it could be put into budget as disability accommodation. – Jan Dorniak Feb 15 at 20:27
12

Background: I am mildly autistic (Asperger's syndrome), and am raising a child with a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury)

The best way to deal with this situation is to find out more about the nature of your family member's coworker and what the specific limitations are.

Due to the various forms of neurological conditions and their different treatments, understanding what one is dealing with, is fairly critical to dealing with it and making the proper accommodations.

For the short-term, bring him down to the most simple, basic tasks possible, then progress from there. With time, FM should be able to find things he is good at, and not. FM could also just ask him if there are things he likes to do on the job. Usually, someone will like to do things they can do without too much trouble. That may help in assigning tasks.

Keep directions simple, straightforward and without much detail or nuance. A checklist might help as well.

Also, limit distractions. The smart phone is the bane of the workplace at every level from top to bottom. If the phone isn't distracting him, that might help as well.

And, as always, be patient and kind

4

This person surely works in the government agency because the agency wants him there as part of their policy. From your question's wording it seems like the decision to employ this person was not made by the supervisor, but even higher up in the organization. It sounds like even the supervisor doesn't quite know how to work with them.

I've worked with people with disabilities. They're generally very pleasant to be around. I found it helpful to try to remember that their way of interacting with people is different from mine. And I tried to remember that different people have different ways of interacting. One style of interaction definitely does not fit all people. That's very true for people with disabilities. I always had to pay a lot of attention to each person, rather than assuming that I could learn how to work with one person and then treat others the same. I've never met the person you mention, obviously. But from your question it sounds like they need to be reminded (gently) about their tasks more often than some.

Still, solving problems with this person's work is not on your family member. The fact that they work differently from others isn't an issue of workplace fairness. It isn't misbehavior or slacking-off. Working with people with disabilities is simply part of the agency's mission and your family member's job. If there are complaints about late deliveries of paper (for example) it's the job of the supervisor to handle them.

Sometimes people with disabilities say or do inappropriate things (as do we all). In those circumstances, it's a good idea to describe the behavior and say it's inappropriate and why. "Saying that word is inappropriate because it upsets people. Please don't." (In my neck of the woods, the word inappropriate is something we teach to people with disabilities to help them cope with the world. Maybe some other word is used elsewhere.)

My suggestion: treat this person with compassion. If he's lost track of his task gently remind him what he's supposed to do. It may help to think of him as a workplace reminder that a government's job is to serve all the people without prejudice.

The supervisor might consider telling him to put his phone in a drawer while he's at work, to help him avoid distractions. That kind of simple firm instruction is often very helpful. "Please put your phone away while you're working. People count on you to do your deliveries, and we all want to make them happy." But, again, it's not on your family member to do that.

  • Right. Done. Sorry I was a bit terse and thanks for the feedback. – O. Jones Feb 14 at 17:23
2

Another disabled individual here (ASD in my case). The best thing I can recommend with the current context and information provided is to find out what works and doesn't work for this employee. Let them "assist" with various tasks (read, let them sit next to someone who does the task), and keep monitoring his behaviour.
It's possible motivation plays a part and in that case maybe you'll find a task that they actually like to do and can start learning to do individually. It's also possible they have some lacking executive functions (planning, inhibition, working memory, etc sound familiar?), I wrote some things about helping an employee with that here, you might find out this individual sucks at completing a task, but can perfectly execute certain parts of certain tasks. I can't plan out an architectural change in the codebase, but I can make an overview of the current system, I can reason about what to change and what to keep, I can write the code and test it, etc. In fact, I can do pretty much everything I need to do for a large architectural change in the codebase, but somehow I can't do that entire task without someone breaking it down for me.

Because we really don't know what specific mental illness plagues this individual, we can't say much more. But in any case I would try to find out what exactly causes the issues you listed. If you can find out the root cause of their problems you can create a safe environment for this employee to actually do productive work and nothing else. They'll be less of a drain to others and they'll be happier. You know what they can't do, but as of now it's really important to figure out what they can do and put those skills to good use. Take the solution-oriented approach, not the problem-oriented one. It really helps when dealing with incapable people, no matter what the reason is for their shortcomings.

2

The question here is: does the management make plans and schedules counting such employees as fully capable, or do they count them as what they really are?

If these employees are counted as fully capable, and the management expects that the job somehow, mystically, gets done in time...

(as in, they expect other employees to pick up the slack without being paid for it),

then the only thing your family member (and all regular employees) can do is to find another job elsewhere.

Otherwise, they will, effectively, be doing unpaid overtime forever. In such a situation, the exact reason becomes irrelevant - if I work 12 hours and I'm paid for 8, I will leave.

Yes, it's possible to give such a disabled employee only super-simple tasks. This ends with normal employees getting only hard ones, since all the simple ones will be given to disabled types, to keep their 8 hours filled. And that is just another variation of the same story, and should get the same answer.

2

As no one said it yet and at the risk of sounding un-PC, unfortunately just not everyone is able to contribute productively in the workplace. We have social safety nets to protect people who cannot earn a living for themselves. A job is not an adequate substitute for proper structured support, if that is what a person requires.

The local government is very keen on providing job opportunities for people with disabilities, such as blind or deaf people.

This is good and is admirable. If a person can contribute to society then they should do so. There should be no reason why a blind or deaf person should not be able to contribute productively in most jobs, provided they are afforded the necessary means to manage their conditions effectively.

Often, people with certain conditions can offer entirely different perspectives and bring a unique set of skills to a given role. Sometimes they can't.

You say you have tried 3 things

Constantly supervise their disabled co-worker ... It would be just as effective, if not more so, to just send one other co-worker to do a job.

This is not (or should not be) the aim of the program. If they are net drain on productivity, they should not be there. The aim should not be inclusivity for the sake of inclusivity. You are not a social worker.

Ignore their disabled co-worker

This is not the aim of the program either. I hardly think that will do much for their self-esteem, or make them feel like a valued colleague, or that they are contributing to society. They are probably worse off for being there, which they may as well not be.

Bring it up to the supervisor

This doesn't really solve anything, it just hands of the burden of responsibility to someone else. Someone needs to make a plan.


You should re-think whether there are any tasks that this person can accomplish which will be a net benefit, not a net drain, on productivity. Identify jobs that need doing - don't invent jobs for the sake of doing so - and assess their suitability.

Does this person have a government representative which manages their placement with your company? You should definitely speak to them. Tell them that you are struggling, that you are finding it difficult to manage this person. They should be able to give you some guidance on the kind of tasks and the kind of direction that would be appropriate and effective. Maybe they can provide some resources that will teach you how to manage this person's specific condition.

Once you have tried the above - and I mean really genuinely tried your best - then if the situation has not improved, it is probably time to have a harsh and frank discussion about this person's suitability for a job at your company.

  • 2
    +1 for being voice of reason. I like this answer for its acceptance of the facts and focus on employee efficiency. Focus on what he can do rather than cannot is great – Anthony Feb 14 at 23:23
1

Your family member needs to find jobs the disabled colleague (DC) can do. If he struggles to understand complex instructions, never give him a complex instruction.

That may require splitting tasks into components. For example, "Load this cart with this list of supplies" turns into "Put 5 packs of paper on this cart", "Put 10 packages of black pens on this cart"...

A worker could perform another task while telling DC each step in DC's task.

1

A few key things can help.

When sending him to different locations, don't forget to ask him to come back afterwards to see you. If you don't when the task is complete he will not have any other instruction to follow and may make something up. We take this for granted, but not everyone can.

Use repetition and avoid if then else tasks. Don't send on a task such as: give this to Bob but if he says he does not need it, then give to Janice if she is there. If not, put it in the box in Cubicle 113. This type of instruction can be tricky for so-called able minded at times. Instead use a sequence: goto 5th floor, go past the coffee room and place in the box 113. Then come back and see me. Including landmarks help. If he has to spin to look for something distraction may follow

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.