Posted by Ainslee Hooper
On January 11, 2024

Ableism in the workplace — How to know it so you can call it out.

A wheelchair user sitting at a office table in front of a laptop talking to colleagues

I recently ran a poll on LinkedIn asking if people felt confident identifying and calling out ableism in the workplace. While 80% were satisfied they could, others commented they were only beginning to understand ableism or did not know what it was. Simply put, ableism is making judgements about disability based on misconceptions. What follows are ten ways in which ableism shows up in the workplace.

  1. Disregarding disability due to visibility — This can show up when a disability cannot be seen, and, as a result, a judgement is made that a person is not disabled compared to someone with a visible disability, resulting in accommodations not being provided.
  2. Comparing disabilities to temporary ailments — Instances of this show up when colleagues compare their experiences of a broken bone with a physical disability or a mild headache to the experience of a chronic migraine sufferer, trivialising the lived experience of the latter.
  3. Not providing psychologically safe space for disability to exist — This can show up when a person has to hide aspects of their disability to fit in to avoid uncomfortable discussions about accommodations or considerations.
  4. Inappropriate use of space — Relating to physical accessibility, this can show up when spaces designated for disability are occupied for non-disability reasons. Another example is being at desks, which hinders the ability to do a job effectively or interact with the team.
  5. Organising an event without considering accessibility needs — This can occur when the team or other workplace event is organised without considering if everyone can attend in a manner that is accessible and inclusive for them.
  6. Lack of accessible options — Not providing accessible options for someone to do their job is a form of ableism. For example, it is not providing online training with subtitles (it’s not only deaf people who use subtitles).
  7. Inappropriate comments about disability — These occur in conversations in the workplace, for example, where a colleague or leader will ask invasive questions about a person’s disability or remark that they would love as much time off as their disabled colleague who has been off sick.
  8. Unequal access to opportunities — This instance of ableism shows up when an employee with a disability is overlooked for advancement or other positions because of a misconception that they would not be able to do the job due to their disability.
  9. Using words out of context — A common occurrence I find when consulting on access and inclusion in organisations is using words relating to disability in a derogatory manner. When this occurs unchecked, employees with invisible disabilities continue to keep their disabilities hidden due to stigma in the workplace.
  10. Ignoring the reality of disability — The most prevalent form of ableism I’ve seen in workplaces is ignoring the fact that disability is varying and fluctuating. While employees with disabilities want to be treated like everyone else, employers and leaders must understand that one person’s experience of disability will vary from the next. One person may need more accommodations, or another only at intervals. Employees with disabilities may also go long periods without being sick, followed by a succession of illnesses. Expecting people with disabilities to perform the same at work without taking into account their needs and accommodations is ignoring the reality of disability.

There are many more examples, and like any form of discrimination, everyone at all levels is responsible for calling it out. What’s been your experience of ableism in the workplace, be it as an employee or a leader? Have you called it out as a bystander? What would you like to see discussed to make your organisation or community more inclusive? Let me know in the comments.

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I’m available for Strategy Reviews, Development of Access and Inclusion Action Plans, Disability Inclusion Consulting and Stakeholder Engagement.

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