Despite the significant number of people living with disability across the U.S.—and the world at large—widespread misconceptions about disability can cause ableist language and behavior to proliferate.
But what is ableism, and how does it play out in the workplace? Here, we offer some answers to these questions, and insights on how to be more inclusive.
What is ableism?
Ableism is the discrimination, prejudice, or oppression of anyone living with mental or physical disabilities. The underlying premise of ableism is that disabled people are inferior to their more able-bodied or able-minded counterparts.
Some examples include: assumptions that disabled people need or want to be “fixed;” violations of the American with Disabilities Act; inaccessible building design and signage; inaccessible website design; and mockery.
Am I being ableist?
The sneaky thing about ableism is that you may not even realize that you are doing it. Because ableist language has been normalized—including words like “blind,” “deaf,” “dumb,” “idiot,” “insane,” “lame,” “nuts,” and “psycho”—it can be difficult to recognize if you are in any way contributing to an oppressive narrative.
However, the best place to start is by being more mindful about the language you use. If you are negatively using descriptors of a disability to describe someone who doesn’t have that disability, that is a clear red flag to stop and think of a more appropriate word to use.
Examples of ableism in the workplace
Most people today understand that ableism is a form of discrimination, but they may not be able to spot their own ableist language or actions in a professional setting. Here are some examples of what ableism can look like in the workplace:
- Believing you know how a co-worker’s disability affects them without asking. Let’s say you watched a documentary about a disability also shared by your co-worker. Though that may make you more informed, it doesn’t make you an expert on that disability’s total effect on a person’s life.
- Assuming your co-worker is faking their disability. For example, you may notice that a co-worker sometimes leaves early for health reasons, despite not being obviously ill. Keep in mind that not all disabilities are visible. Just because you are unable to see it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist or that it isn’t debilitating.
- Pretending disability doesn’t exist. A co-worker’s disability may make you uncomfortable enough that you gloss over it completely. Though it’s important to not treat anyone as lesser than because of their disability, it’s equally important to acknowledge that they face different challenges. Failing to do this can negate a person’s experience.
- Comparing your co-worker’s disability with your temporary injury or illness. The keyword here is “temporary.” For example, if your co-worker’s disability affects a body part you’ve injured in the past, those two experiences are not comparable. Generally speaking, disabilities are long-term and have serious effects on a person’s physical and psychological health.
- Speaking for your disabled co-worker. If you notice that someone is “talking down” to a co-worker with a disability, don’t assume the co-worker wants you to step in. No one likes when someone speaks for them without their permission, so be wary of doing this.
- Not making it safe to speak about disability. If disability makes you uncomfortable, or if you hold some assumptions about individuals with a disability, you may be sharing that attitude unintentionally by glossing over or completely neglecting a co-worker’s disability. The consequence of this is making it unsafe for your co-worker to speak up and ask for what they need to do their job well.
Learning to be more inclusive
A practical way to eliminate ableism in the workplace is to recognize how you can be more inclusive. Inclusion is not just a set of organizational policies to make sure all employees are safely seen and heard; it is also about doing the homework of reversing your own misconceptions about disability.
By normalizing disability, you can start to reverse any misconceptions (conscious or unconscious) you may have. This means understanding that there are many more people living with disability than you realize, and working to catch yourself before saying or doing something unintentionally ableist.
For instance, many of the examples above have to do with assumptions. To halt your assumptions and make sure you are being sensitive to co-worker with a disability, don’t be afraid to ask thoughtful questions. This can start simply with, “How’s work going?” and may eventually graduate on to, “What do you need to do your best at work?” or “What is the most challenging part of your experience at work?”
Notice that neither question puts your co-worker’s disability front-and-center, and that’s the point. Remember that disability is a part of their identity, but it isn’t their whole identity. Let them decide if they feel comfortable opening up to you.
For more information on how to confront ableism and support your differently-abled friends and co-workers, be sure to check out the Idealist Guide to Working (and Living) with Chronic Illness and Disability.