When it comes to individuals with disabilities in the workplace, there can be many different forms of discrimination. However, not all of these types of discrimination are what you would expect. In reality, ableism in the workplace can greatly harm a person’s ability to thrive—and certain forms of ableism actually count as discrimination that can make a work environment hostile, unproductive, and unsafe.
So, what are your rights as a person with a disability? What are ways that ableism in the workplace can impact you? And most importantly: what are employers doing to help eliminate ableist practices so that you feel comfortable and empowered as a person with a disability? Below, we have the answers you’re looking for.
What Does Ableism in the Workplace Look Like?
Simply defined, ableism is a specific type of discrimination against people with disabilities. This form of discrimination puts a preference on able-bodied, neurotypical people—individuals who do not have any form of disability. Ableism unfortunately exists in every nook of our society, from the way that we move around the world to conversations at the dinner table. The workplace is no exception.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination in the workplace as well as other areas of their life. Since ableism is a form of discrimination, this means that individuals with disabilities have legal protections in place to make sure that they have equal access to opportunities, proper accommodations, and an environment where they can thrive.
However, this is often easier said than done. The first step toward eliminating ableism, though, is recognizing where it occurs. Thus, here are some of the most common ways that ableism in the workplace shows up:
Hindering Equal Access to Opportunities
In the workplace, ableism can show up in more obvious ways, such as inaccessible spaces. For example, if an employer does not have accessible parking spots, wheelchair accessibility, or working elevators, an employee who relies on a mobility device might not be able to safely get to their work station. This would prevent them from having the same opportunities as one of their able-bodied coworkers, which is not only ableist but also a form of discrimination.
Furthermore, giving opportunities to people without disabilities and not offering the same opportunities to people with disabilities is a clear form of discrimination. This might include posting a job description that unnecessarily includes a physical requirement, like lifting or pushing. Additionally, not hiring somebody because they have a disability is discriminatory that is punishable by law.
But there are other ways that ableism can show up in the workplace that are less obvious as well. Any type of practice in the workplace that excludes—whether on purpose or not—a person with a disability is ableist. There are countless ways that this can happen, but some examples would include certain team-building exercises that rely on specific physical or mental capabilities, training videos without closed captioning, refusing work accommodations, rearranging a workspace to be inaccessible, or even having a lack of digital accessibility.
Lack of Digital Accessibility
Digital accessibility is incredibly important in the workplace. Many of the ways that we communicate are through technology now, especially when it comes to work emails, messages, or other types of communication. Without the right type of digital accessibility in place, people with disabilities can easily be excluded from work opportunities.
So, before sending out that staff email with that puppy picture, check to make sure that there is alternate text for graphics, easy-to-read fonts, and screen-reader capability. Taking one more minute to practice inclusivity can make all the difference when it comes to reducing ableism in the workplace.
Ableist Language and Microaggressions
Along the same lines, despite the fact that ableism directly threatens a company’s mission of inclusion and belonging, it can often happen unintentionally. This occurs frequently when it comes to ableist language or microaggressions. Many different phrases that we commonly use are rooted in ableism surrounding physical and mental health concerns without our knowledge. Ableist language includes words and phrases such as:
- Special needs
Additionally, using the words “blind” and “deaf” out of context (for example, “I didn’t see you there; I must be blind!”) can belittle the experiences of people with disabilities. These phrases might seem harmless or unintentional, but the truth is that they perpetuate disability stereotypes, which make disabled people out to be lazy, weak, or “lesser” than those without disabilities.
Ignoring the Reality of People with Disabilities
Lastly, ableism can happen when employers or coworkers don’t acknowledge the lived experiences of people with disabilities. This might come in the form of offering unsolicited health advice. Telling somebody with chronic pain, for instance, that a certain diet, yoga pose, specialty vitamin, etc. can make their pain go away can be extremely frustrating to the person who is experiencing the medical condition. After all, people with disabilities are experts of their own bodies, minds, and feelings.
Furthermore, it is ableist to compare a temporary illness or injury to what a person with a disability experiences. Saying that you understand what it’s like to use a mobility device because you broke your ankle one time in high school devalues the complexities of living with a disability. Or emphasizing that you know what it’s like to live with anxiety because you were stressed about your performance review is not the same thing as having a mental health condition that causes debilitating symptoms.
In a society that is built primarily for able-bodied, neurotypical people, individuals with disabilities can be left feeling like an afterthought. Not only can this have a serious impact on a person’s emotional wellbeing, but it can also add barriers for people with disabilities to get the same basic human rights as anybody else.
How Can You Eliminate Ableism in the Workplace?
The only way to promote inclusion and belonging for people with disabilities is to eliminate ableism in the workplace each time it comes up. This means looking inward just as much as looking at the overall practices and values of a company. For employers who are hoping to eliminate ableism in the workplace, this can start with raising awareness about ableism—from what it looks like to take the necessary steps to be proactively anti-ableist.
Individuals with disabilities want more than just to be included—we want thoughtful, accessible spaces. We want to contribute with our talents, education, and skills without having to fight to be heard. Most urgently, we want our peers to acknowledge all of the ways that we can make a workplace more inclusive, more functional, and more enjoyable for all.
What Are Some Unexpected Ways You’ve Seen Ableism in the Workplace?
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What topics related to ableism in the workplace should we cover next?
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Are you or someone you know living with chronic pain? Have you recently been a victim of ableism in the workplace or somewhere else?