Posted by Ainslee Hooper
On February 15, 2024

Unveiling Ableism in the Workplace: Real-Life Examples and Strategies for Change

A person in an office cowering in their seat while someone stands over them with a menacing look and a palm open.

Ableism, like sexism, racism, ageism and other forms of discrimination, is engrained in our culture. It permeates how we think, design and do things. It manifests itself in various forms in the workplace, influencing the implementation (or lack thereof) of policies and procedures and how they are followed, often going unnoticed or unaddressed. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing, 1 in 4 people with disabilities reported experiencing ableism in the workplace in 2021-2022. Despite increasing awareness, many workplaces continue to perpetuate ableist attitudes and practices, creating barriers for individuals with disabilities. Last month, I touched on ten examples of how ableism can show up in the workplace so allies can feel confident to identify and call it out. The response to this newsletter was tremendous, receiving numerous messages in my inbox from disabled folk who had similar experiences to share. This article explores some of these experiences and discusses strategies for fostering a more inclusive and accommodating environment.

*Per my sources’ requests, real names and other identifying information have not been included.

Example 1: Inaccessible Physical Environment

Peta, a wheelchair user, joined a new company only to discover that the office building lacked ramps, making it impossible for them to navigate the workspace independently. Peta said it was “…a dehumanising experience to have to ask for assistance to do things I could usually do myself like accessing the printer or the bathroom because accessibility hadn’t been considered.” They added, “The business knew I was a wheelchair user beforehand, and yet, I had to request a ramp be put in so I didn’t have to depend on the availability of others”. Moreover, the company’s meeting rooms were not equipped with hearing loops, excluding employees with hearing impairments from fully participating in discussions.

Example 2: Inaccessible Physical Environment

Lisa, a chronic back pain sufferer, started a new job and was invited to a work event to get to know her colleagues. Lisa, who uses walking sticks to get around, arrived at the event only to discover that it was up two flights of stairs. Lisa said it was “…demoralising to have to navigate an inaccessible space which exacerbated my back pain to mix with my new colleagues .” She said, “If proper event planning were in place, this would not have happened.”

Example 3: Microaggressions and Stereotyping

John, who is deaf, constantly faces microaggressions from his colleagues who question his abilities and intelligence. Despite his qualifications and contributions, he is often overlooked for challenging projects or promotions due to assumptions about his capabilities. As John says, “People assume I’m dumb or slow in the workplace, but it’s because I don’t hear all the important discussions happening around me, so I’m only getting pieces of necessary information. I have suggested co-workers/managers wear earplugs for a day to see what I go through, but that’s met with protests, saying it would prevent them from doing their work.”

Example 4: Lack of Accommodations and Flexibility

Megan, who experiences chronic pain due to a medical condition, requested a flexible work schedule to accommodate her doctor appointments and therapy sessions. However, her manager dismissed her request, citing concerns about productivity and ” not wanting to set a precedent for other employees.”

Strategies for Change:

  1. Education and Training: Employers should provide comprehensive ongoing training on disability awareness and accommodation strategies for all employees from induction onwards. This can help reduce stereotypes, increase empathy, and promote a more inclusive workplace culture.
  2. Accessibility Assessments: Conduct regular assessments of the workplace environment to identify and address the various barriers that prevent individuals with disabilities from fully participating in work activities. This may involve installing ramps, elevators, accessible restrooms and assistive technologies. These assessments can be conducted by engaging an Access Consultant in the first instance to assess and make recommendations, but should also involve speaking to employees and customers to identify any barriers that compliance does not address.
  3. Policy Review and Implementation: Review existing policies and procedures to ensure they are inclusive and accommodating for employees with disabilities. This includes implementing flexible work arrangements, reasonable accommodations, and anti-discrimination policies.
  4. Foster a Culture of Inclusion: Encourage open communication and dialogue about disability-related workplace issues. Provide platforms for employees to share their experiences and perspectives, and actively listen to their feedback to inform organisational change.

Conclusion: Addressing ableism in the workplace requires a concerted effort from employers, employees, and stakeholders to create a more inclusive and accommodating environment for individuals with disabilities. By recognising and addressing examples of ableism, implementing proactive strategies, and fostering a culture of inclusion, workplaces can become more equitable and welcoming for all employees.

If you’d like to discuss removing invisible barriers to reduce the risk of ableism in your organisation –

  • I’m available for Strategy Reviews, Development and reviewing of Access and Inclusion Action Plans, Disability Inclusion Consulting and Stakeholder Engagement.
  • You can book an intro chat to discuss your organisation’s specific needs.
  • Book an intro chat with Ainslee.

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