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The Case for Natural Supports in the Workplace

A man and a woman, co-workers, sit outside enjoying conversation with one another.

Most typical employees, unless they really like to work autonomously with their heads down and their doors closed, rely on their peers and colleagues for support. Since we all have different skills and levels of expertise in individual skill areas, it would be natural for us to turn to someone else for help with a task. For example, we know that Joan is a superb editor, so it would be great to have her “eyes” on this document before it goes out. Richard has done several presentations for that group previously, so he might be able to give us some tips for what approach seems to resonate with that audience.

The term “natural supports” is most frequently used when speaking about people with disabilities, but they are really just an extension of what people without disabilities do for each other, in the workplace, in the home, or out in the public arena. They refer to assistance that can be provided to employees with disabilities so they can be more successful at their jobs (to the betterment of the entire company or organization) and so they can feel more welcome and included as part of the workplace’s social fabric.

Here are a few examples of what natural supports look like in the workplace:

  • Staff members spending a little extra time making sure their new colleague understands what is expected of them 
  • Helping the employee with a disability fill out a required onboarding form
  • A peer or supervisor who helps review a task list at the end of each day 
  • A colleague gently reminding the employee when a scheduled break is over
  • A colleague who reads the morning mail for an employee who is blind
  • Going the extra step by inviting employees to sit with them at lunch or to join the group for an after-work social event 
  • A staff member who has a son or daughter or sibling on the autism spectrum supporting an employee with autism who is struggling with anxiety

By definition, natural supports are different from paid supports. A paid support might be a job coach or staff outside of the company or organization tasked with assisting the employee with a disability in doing his or her job. That additional person might spend a few hours a week or more making sure the employee with a disability understands job expectations and the tasks needed to accomplish a project. Or, they might show up periodically when the employee is being transitioned to new job responsibilities. Although this can be a very beneficial component in the beginning, after a while it sets up a barrier between the employee with a disability and his work peers. It sends a message to the workplace and to the employee himself that this employee cannot do this job without a support person. It also gets in the way of the natural development of friendships in a work setting and does little to promote self-esteem and independence.

Our hope at the Tennessee Disability Coalition is that employers and employees will have the desire to hire individuals with disabilities and the willingness to provide a welcoming environment where colleagues assist their peers with disabilities. By looking around to identify those naturally-occurring supports that can help, most of the time with no cost or little effort, a new member will feel like part of the team. 

When we are naturally supporting our colleagues, we show that we are in this together with our co-workers with disabilities. We play a part in cultivating an inclusive work environment where every person feels valued. An organization or company succeeds when its employees feel heard and included in team work. 

Will you join us this year and beyond as we strive to promote a work culture where we’re all in this together with our friends, family, and colleagues with disabilities? Find out more about the campaign and how we can advocate together to create a society that values, includes, and supports people with disabilities at (link). 

If you live and work in the Tennessee area, Disability Day on the Hill is a great opportunity to support your co-workers with disabilities. During this day of advocacy at the Cordell Hull State Building in Nashville, Tenn., constituents meet with their legislators to talk about issues they care about, such as disability employment. Call us at 615-383-9442 or email to schedule an appointment with your legislator on this year’s Disability Day on the Hill on Monday, February 4.