What is “ableism” in the workplace? According to The Armstrong Law Firm, “Ableism” is a form of disability discrimination – but it’s so culturally ingrained that it’s often hard to combat. Ableism is anything that devalues someone based on their disability – whether that disability is visible or not.” Many people would argue that they have never witnessed ableism, be it in the workplace or out in the real world – but this is a statement that should be challenged. What you might see as ‘lending a helping hand’ – a person with disabilities could interpret as ableism. We have put together a little scenario of ableism below:

👩 Meet Sally. Sally is able-bodied and works in an office in the city. Her co-worker Lucy is in a wheelchair. Lucy occasionally needs assistance in the workplace but not really, and when she does, she asks. Sally likes helping people, so when she sees Lucy in the office she will try and assist whenever possible – normally without Lucy’s consent. Because Sally has assumed Lucy needs constant assistance  – this initial act of kindness is now an act of ableism. Yes, Sally’s intentions were good, but she didn’t ask Lucy if she needed help, instead, she presumed – allowing her bias to sway her judgement. 

Other forms of ableism include mocking or dismissing someone who is suffering from an invisible disability, asking questions out of the blue such as “What type of multiple sclerosis do you have?”, offering up “cure-all” advice based on fad diets or current trends and using phrases such “snap out of it” when talking to an individual who suffers from a mental health condition. “Ableism is destructive to the self-esteem of the disabled individual and it’s harmful to the workplace in general. It often denies the disabled person the autonomy they need and the right to control their own body or privacy.”

Organizational psychologist Nancy Doyle states in an article entitled Ableism In The Workplace: When Trying Harder Doesn’t Work that “Many people… are unaware that they use ableist language and adhere to ableist principles all the time. It is one of the last “isms” that is still widely socially acceptable. Neurodiversity traits are biological but are treated by many as moral character deficits.” The best way to tackle this type of prejudice is to encourage awareness of the term and what it represents. This type of prejudice contributes to inequality and inaccessibility within the workplace and contributes to the demise of an individuals self-worth and confidence.

Activities to try with your team

  • In your next team meeting or all hands. Think of disabled peers in your space and discuss projects they have worked on
  • Re-framing constructive feedback through the lens of bias. Discuss what ableist assumptions you make in your ways of working
  • Think about your last 1:1 Discuss your customer community and what efforts you’ve made to address accessibility

New habits to make a difference

  1. Find a thought leader who speaks about disability in relation to your domain- read articles they write and follow them on social media.
  2. Consider how you can identify people with disabilities in your wider community- how can you build empathy with their experience.
  3. Look at the content you consume, how can you include the voices of the disabled?

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