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  1. Blog
  2. Guides to Discrimination

Ableism in the Workplace: What It Is & How to Combat It

3 focus areas for companies to prioritize right now

Woman typing on her computer
Photo courtesy of Cliff Booth

Of the “isms”—sexism, racism, ageism, and the like—there’s one form of discrimination and bias that often goes undiscussed: ableism. 

Ableism happens every day and in every setting, both intentionally and unintentionally, but goes unaddressed for a number of reasons—chiefly, a lack of understanding and education. Instead of striving for equity, our world most often runs on the assumption that people with disabilities need to be fixed in order to function in society, which is wrong. Society, in every way needed, should evolve to be inclusive of people with disabilities, and all people for that matter. 

Let’s discuss how misguided beliefs about disability affect our workplaces and what companies can do about it.

Read more: Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference in the Workplace?

What is ableism?

Abelism is discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities. It’s rooted in the belief that people without disabilities (those who are abled) are superior, and it shows up in a variety of ways. Stereotypes, microaggressions, and outright discrimination in hiring and promoting are often the product of ableism.

In the U.S., one in four adults has some kind of disability, whether that be physical or cognitive, visible or invisible, etc. That’s around 61 million people who have difficulty with hearing, vision, cognition and decision-making, walking or climbing stairs, and/or difficulty taking care of themselves or living independently. 

That ableism exists at all regardless of statistics is problematic, but Emily Howe, a gender equity advisor in Silicon Valley, captures an essential paradox of ableism: “We have a disability today or we’re going to at some point—if we’re lucky or we’re alive long enough—to have a temporary disability (sprained ankle) or an actual disability,” she says. “It’s better to have your workplace ready for actual humans.” We’ll talk about that next.

The effects of ableism at work

Ableism in the workplace has serious effects on people with disabilities. In fact, workers with severe disabilities make around $1,000 less at their full-time jobs than their counterparts without disabilities do. Not only that, around 13.3 million people with disabilities between the ages of 16 and 64 report increased difficulty in finding a job, and only four out of 10 working-aged adults with disabilities have jobs.

“Many disabled people also face discrimination throughout the hiring process,” says Emily Deaton, disability expert at The Roots of Loneliness Project. “Even well-meaning employers may often have ableist beliefs about disabled people (for example, thinking that a person with a disability that affects his/her mobility means that person is automatically less intelligent or less qualified).” 

That same bias and lack of understanding can be found throughout our workplaces, even and most especially in the policies we do or don’t have. Requiring office workers to be able to lift a certain weight (despite not really needing to do so) is a common subtly ableist inclusion in many job descriptions. Rigid work hours, too, can make life needlessly difficult team members who need extra doctor visits or additional time for transportation. 

Not being able to “fit” into an unaccommodated workplace can perpetuate negative stereotypes and microaggressions while on the job, making people with disabilities feel othered or “less than,” and sometimes causing them to be edged out. 

Read more: How Microaggressions Affect Change in the Workplace

4 examples of ableism in the workplace

While ableism certainly rears its ugly head in many ways in the workplace, this form of discrimination can often be more subtle than major pay gaps and staggering unemployment rates. In fact, you may exhibit ableist behavior without realizing it—which is why it’s so crucial to understand what language and actions are discriminatory and how you can combat them.  

Read more: How KR Liu’s Advocacy Sparked a Movement for Disability Inclusion

1. Inappropriate or thoughtless use of space

Use the accessible restroom stall instead of a regular stall? Do you take up more than one seat on a full bus or train? One of the most common ways ableism appears in the workplace is through simple actions like these, ones that seem innocent enough, but actually take up the already limited space that’s reserved for disabled people.

It’s as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, reserving an accessible restroom stall for only those who need it, and opting to stand during your morning commute. 

2. Ableist language

Some mainstream words or phrases have hurtful and offensive origins that link disability to negativity. Calling something “lame” or “retarded” or calling someone a “psycho” or a “spaz” is hurtful and ableist behavior.

Demeaning another person’s intelligence, making light of a mental disability, using action verbs that don’t apply to everyone in the office—even if you’re being playful—can be isolating.

Asking people “how” or “why” they are disabled—that too is ableist language that’s intrusive and insensitive. 

Read more: 12 Cool Ways to Bring Inclusivity into Your Office

3. Making assumptions

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about disabilities is that they’re easy to spot, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Severe anxiety or depression, ADHD, dyslexia—these are all cognitive disabilities that aren’t clearly visible, but still have a significant impact on the lives of those they affect. 

It’s impossible to tell what someone else is going through from an outside perspective. That’s why making comments about someone else’s behavior—like how they’re always so tired, or they never go to any company outings, or they can never focus on their work—can be damaging to those who are dealing with less-visible disabilities. 

Stay away from office gossip, avoid making assumptions, and give people the benefit of the doubt. 

4. Using demeaning communication practices

Just because someone is disabled doesn’t mean they want to be treated like an inspiration story. Odds are, they just wanted to be treated the same way you treat every other coworker! You don’t need to let them know how brave they are, or how special their story is—not only is it demeaning, but it’s also objectifying. 

You might slip into other ableist habits, like using a “nice” voice when you’re talking to your disabled coworker, or referring to them without directly addressing them—i.e. “What can I get for him?” or “Where would she like to sit?” It’s easy to change just a few simple things about the way you communicate, and prevent making people feel othered in the process.

5. Being invasive or paternalistic

No matter how curious you are, it’s not appropriate to ask your coworker about their disability. Not only is it a distraction in the workplace, but it may also bring up some pretty painful memories. Don’t push anyone to share things that they aren’t comfortable sharing. 

In the same vein, disability and inability aren’t interchangeable, so be sure you aren’t forcing extra help onto someone who didn’t ask for it. Pushing someone’s wheelchair, finishing other people's sentences when you think they’re taking too long, invading personal space even if you think you’re helping—those are all examples of ableist behavior. 

Read more: The Origins of Sexism & Why It’s Just as Toxic as Ever

How do we combat ableism in the workplace?

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities while job seeking and while employed, but compliance with ADA (providing accessibility, etc.) isn’t the only step employers should take to start combating ableism. Here are three measures that can help organizations better their cultures and support of employees with disabilities.

1. Focus on hiring

“Workplaces should prioritize hiring people with disabilities, just as inclusivity in other areas is often emphasized (gender, race, etc.),” Deaton says. “The more diverse your staff is, the more likely you are to learn from each other and solve problems.” 

2. Educate yourself and your team about accessibility

Brooke Grossinger, who is Deaf, is the community engagement manager for Sorenson Communications, a company that provides technology and services for Deaf and hearing people to connect. She says she’s been encouraged by companies starting to recognize the importance of sharing information about accessibility. “For example, my husband [who is also Deaf] was asked by a friend to give a presentation at his company. It’s nice that a friend of ours sees that there is value in spreading accessibility awareness with other companies. Some former colleagues who have moved on to other companies have helped raise awareness as well and show that these other companies are Deaf friendly.”

Gossigner continues, “The more knowledgeable people are in the hearing community, the more accepting they will be. My daughter, who is Deaf, wants to become a vet. She is 9 and has mentioned this over and over again. So I’m thinking about her future. Anything is possible. Technology is important. Having access to video relay technology with an interpreter is helpful. Noise is a part of the hearing world, but we can still connect.”

Achieving truly adequate accessibility

Since education is key, we asked Grossinger to give us an example of one common misconception that illustrates the importance of achieving true accessibility through awareness. Here’s an accessibility misstep that affects day-to-day life: “If I go to a museum, there may be printed documents about the artwork in English [instead of an audio tour or a tour guide speaking].” Grossinger says. “But for many Deaf people, English is not their first language. American Sign Language (ASL) is sometimes a Deaf person’s first [and most comfortable] language, so having to read so much information in English can be tiring. A more accessible option in this case is having a video explanation in ASL. When an ASL interpreter is provided, I’m much more able and apt to connect with the artist and their work.”

3. Prioritize inclusivity

Understanding the need for accessibility is important, but so is thinking beyond logistics. Ensuring all people feel they belong is critical to eliminating ableism. “True inclusivity should mean that a workplace isn't just barely accessible, but that the language used is inclusive (ex: if you're at a meeting, instead of saying, "stand up," saying, "stand up if you're able," makes a big difference), websites should be accessible to those with different disabilities, marketing should ideally include people with disabilities, etc,” Deaton says. “Ultimately, normalizing disability will go a long way toward stopping ableism.”

About our sources

Emily Deaton is writer, editor, and a disability expert at The Roots of Loneliness Project. She graduated from James Madison University with a degree in English and a minor in nonprofit studies.

With a big firm background in management consulting and organizational change—and an master’s degree in gender/cultural studies—Femily (aka Emily Howe) advises tech and other male-majority companies, like law and finance to help them advance womxn, foster inclusion of all kinds, and reduce workplace bias. Her clients include companies such as SoFi, Sonos, 23andMe, EA, splunk, and more. 

Brooke Grossinger is the community engagement manager for Sorenson Communications, a company that provides technology and services for Deaf and hearing people to connect. Brooke graduated from Gallaudet University with a bachelor’s degree in Deaf studies. In 2008, she earned a master’s degree in AmericanSign Language (ASL) education.

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