Do you know how much ableism impacts your workforce? If you are disabled, you probably know that the impact is significant. If you aren’t disabled, you probably don’t realize. The fact is, if you take the time to listen to disabled employees’ experiences, you’ll realize the prevalence of ableism. And the fact it can have significant impacts.
What is ableism
There are different understandings of ableism. Wikipedia defines it as:
discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities and/or people who are perceived to be disabled.
Discrimination. Social prejudice. These terms sound like “big and scary stuff”. And it can be. There are some aspects of ableism that are massive. It can be part of the hiring processes, like asking a candidate to walk the interviewer through each job, why they left. This forces someone to potentially reveal a disability as the reason to take a break from work. It is ableism, and also happens to be illegal in a lot of jurisdictions. It could be that you won’t hire someone without a driver’s licence, even if driving isn’t part of their job description. Or it could be that you can’t hire someone who is blind and uses a screen reader to function digitally, because your internal systems and platforms are not accessible. Or you can organize a social event in a place that isn’t wheelchair friendly. These are pretty big, obvious cases of disability discrimination.
Intentions rarely matter
I asked a colleague once to stop using the expression “it’s crazy” as a way to express a negative about something. I explained that the origin of the word “crazy” is actually a medical term related to mental illness, and to use that word to illustrate a negative was to tar people with mental illnesses as negatives.
The colleague said “But I didn’t mean it that way”.
It doesn’t matter. Your intent is insignificant compared to the impact your words can have on people. It’s not about you, but about the people on the receiving end.
We often hear “assume beneficial intent”. In other words, we should give people the benefit of the doubt. They meant well. They didn’t mean to micro-aggress us. As I wrote a moment ago though, intentions rarely matter. Giving people the benefit of the doubt is one thing for one-off events. But when there’s a pattern of micro-aggressions, as an employer, if you don’t act on it, you’re fostering a toxic work environment. Failure to address this, or to resource managers to act appropriately could even lead to moral trauma for managers and employee that see it happening, that understand what’s going on, and yet are shackled and unable to act. Not only are the disabled folks suffering from micro-aggressions and ableism, but the folks around them can also feel the impact. Don’t force staff to make moral compromises.
Less obvious ableism
Disabled folks are often facing ableism that isn’t obvious. It can be presented as a compliment, and you can mean well. But what you say is, actually, a form of ableism.
For instance, people complimenting me, a wheelchair user, for doing my grocery shopping. When you stop to think about it, your compliment implies that you didn’t expect a wheelchair user to do grocery shopping. You are implying that we aren’t able to shop, that we surpassed your expectations of us. Similar stories abound from when disabled folks go to the gym.
Good to see you standing
A friend of mine was recently told by one of their colleagues “It’s so good to see you standing up”. My friend typically uses a wheelchair but sometimes falls back on using a cane because they have to do errands, like going to the doctor, in non-accessible offices. My friend thought to themselves “Yes, it’s great. I will likely feel like shit all day as a result, but I didn’t have a choice”.
That well meaning comment had a significant impact. My friend had a long discussion with their assistant about it, including the idea of reporting the interaction to HR. Then, still disturbed by the interaction, they brought it up in a disability support group.
My friend felt bad for hours. Maybe days. From one single “well meaning” comment. Their work suffered from it.
I was a speaker at a tech conference where one of the keynote presenters asked the audience to stand up if they’d been working in tech for more than 5 years. I had been working in tech, and been in senior roles for many times that. But I couldn’t stand up. The keynote presenter wasn’t intentionally excluding me. But they did. They didn’t mean to make me feel bad. But they did.
There have been a lot of disability related euphemisms over the last many decades. We aren’t disabled, we’re “special”. Or we’re “challenged”.
Or people think they are cute, and actually mean well, when they write “DisAbled” instead of “Disabled”. And when you do that, you just focused the Abled experience. You’ve actually erased the disability experience. Once again, the implication here is that it’s better to be non-disabled than disabled.
Avoid euphemisms. Call a cat a cat. Say the word. “Disabled” is not a dirty word
A lot of these situations come down to what we often refer to as micro-aggressions. They aren’t big slap in the face kind of events. But they build up. The expression “death by a thousand paper cuts” comes to mind. And it’s one of these things where it’s hard to understand the true, intense, and negative impact they have.
You may assume that I’m over reacting if I take it badly when you tell me “I don’t know how you do it, I’d rather be dead than in a wheelchair”. You imply here that my life isn’t worth living, whether you realize it or not. And when you hear that enough time, you may end up reacting negatively. Maybe I don’t have it in me to explain this to you today. Maybe this is the 10th micro-aggression I faced that day.
I’m not one for political correctness for the sake of political correctness. But words have power. The words we use have an impact. They can reflect whether you implement accessibility because you have to, or because you care. Words can instill a sense of helplessness, or a sense of freedom. People will feel lessened by some expressions. Language can also be used to oppress minority groups.
There are many sites out there that talk about disability language, and what terms are, or are not ableist. It’s a relatively straightforward thing to look online and find guides.
These are 3 pages of some interest on the topic:
While individuals can, and should, take responsibility for learning these things, employers also have a level of responsibility. Company-wide trainings can be a really effective way to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Training about accessibility or disability etiquette and language are a great starting point.
But a company that is serious about doing the right thing because they care (rather than because they have to), could also look at working with experts to develop a culture of accessibility and inclusion. Look for ways to extend understanding about accessibility and inclusion beyond a surface understanding. Hook that knowledge specifically into practice areas.
Ultimately, this will lead to a workforce that is more diverse and happier. It will lead to a workforce that is more productive. You will end up with a better product, likely developed faster.
Reducing ableism in the workplace, it’s good for everyone.