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  1. Blog
  2. Microaggressions

How Microaggressions Affect Change in the Workplace

Advocates for disabled employees say language matters, but a structural overhaul is what's needed to achieve equity

Woman dealing with ableist microaggressions
Photo courtesy of Marcus Aurelius; Illustration by Daniel Stapleton

This article is part of InHerSight's Microaggressions series. Our coverage explores the complexity of discriminatory language and bias and the effects of microaggressions on women’s livelihood and opportunities to advance.

One in four people in the U.S. has a disability. But many physical office spaces and types of work are built around an idea of “normal” that excludes a vast number of American adults. 

Lydia Brown, a disability justice advocate and consultant, says that the language we use to communicate is shaped by the ideas of what is considered normal or good in society.

Using language like “crazy,” “lame,” “stupid,” and “retarded” can both reflect and strengthen a worldview in which disabled people’s* lives have less value. Not only is such language offensive to many disabled people, but it also has real consequences when it comes to the institutionalization of disabled people and the legacy of eugenics in the U.S. 

It is not difficult to find alternatives for words like these in your everyday vocabulary, like “wild,” “boring,” “uninformed,” and “reckless,” respectively, for the words listed above. Brown, who is also an adjunct professor in disability studies at Georgetown University and policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, has written a guide to language alternatives in their blog on disability justice. 

A major challenge for many disabled people—especially women—in the workplace is the trend of describing coworkers who have clear boundaries or advocate for their needs as “difficult,” says Liz Kessler, a nonprofit professional and blogger about disability justice who has a nonverbal learning disorder. 

Words like “difficult” and “lazy” are often used to describe people with different work styles and strategies. These are microaggressions—subtle and often unintentional acts of discrimination—that are harmful to disabled people. A workplace that socially punishes people for seeking the accommodations they need is damaging to all employees and can result in employees just enduring any challenges that arise.

“We need to be open to different ways of doing things in the workplace,” Kessler says.

Language is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath lies many different levels of structural discrimination that show up in the workplace. If you only focus on ableist microaggressions in terms of language usage, Brown says, you might avoid addressing more harmful and insidious forms of ableism, which is the discrimination and social prejudice against disabled people.

“It actually becomes laughable when employers put on some form of disability awareness training but they never look inward [at their own policies],” Brown says. “It’s much easier to do the diversity training and say ‘we’re all good now.’”

While microaggressions against marginalized groups are important to notice and confront, focusing only on this surface level of communication and language can prevent deeper structural change within a workplace. Instead, microaggressions should serve as a starting point to greater awareness about the different forms in which ableism shows up.

Discrimination in hiring

There is discrimination in employment starting at the job application phase. In the U.S., this results in disabled people having a much lower rate of employment (37 percent) than non-disabled people (77 percent).

A job description often requires that the applicant be able to lift 50 pounds or has a driver’s license. These requirements are rarely even a core part of the job and prevent many disabled people from being able to apply. 

Even passing over a candidate because of gaps in their resume is a seemingly neutral action that discriminates against disabled people, Brown says, as some disabled people have gaps in their resumes for medical absences or mental illness. 

Ableism also intersects with racism: Applications that ask about a person’s criminal history are likely, due to racist policing, to exclude Black disabled people before considering their application and circumstances. By the age of 28, over 55 percent of Black disabled people have been arrested. So eliminating any applicants early on in the process because of a criminal record can prevent disabled people of color from getting jobs for which they might otherwise be qualified. 

The more recent use of AI in some company hiring programs can discriminate against people with autism, speech disabilities, tic disorders, and people who are blind or deaf, before they even reach a hiring manager.

“The way that the system is written assuming it can be neutral or objective will always inevitably treat disability as aberration,” Brown says. Shifting away from hiring algorithms and being open to applicants with a diverse range of experiences on their resume will increase the hiring pool.

Workplace policies

Many companies discriminate against disabled people indirectly. By having regressive family medical leave policies, inflexible attendance and work-from-home policies, and particular types of performance assessments, companies don’t take into account the various needs of people who actually work there. These policies can result in companies punishing someone because they are having medical complications that prevent them from going into the office, or passing someone up for promotion because they have a different style of processing or communication than employees without disabilities.

Strong health benefits that cover frequent mental health counseling can be a crucial support for disabled employees, as disabled people are more likely than non-disabled people to have depression. In addition, coverage of occupational therapy can prevent employees from having to spend money out-of-pocket for care they need.

Having a policy about reasonable accommodations in the workplace is useful. Being equipped with strong policies to support all potential employees is something that will benefit everyone.

Barriers to access

Some companies might lack elevators or wide door-frames because there are no employees who use a wheelchair, though this is often in violation of the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act. But then, they’re unable to hire any wheelchair users because the space is not physically accessible. Kessler says it’s a “chicken-and-egg problem” that prevents companies from hiring people with mobility disabilities.

Sometimes, the primary shift needed for a disabled person to work at a company is a specific piece of equipment or software to allow them to perform their job functions, like a screen reader and speech recognition software for someone with vision loss.

“People often assume a blind person can’t use a computer, but often it just takes one extra piece of software,” says Kessler.

Now that many events are virtual, choosing a video conferencing platform that allows for live-captioning is a way to support hearing-impaired people. Kessler also recommends companies have a registration form for events including a section on accessibility needs so that they can prepare to meet access needs beforehand, such as hiring an ASL interpreter if requested.

Cultural barriers

But Brown and Kessler say there’s ableism in the concept of work in general as it exists in the U.S., especially as access to health insurance is tied to the ability to work over 30 hours per week.

“We attach work to the ability to survive, and that in itself is deeply ableist, because it is not possible for everybody to do work in the way that our society recognizes it or in the way or the number of hours society is willing to pay people money for,” says Brown.

Sometimes, disabled people are unable to work in environments where they are required to work over 40 hours a week or be available for communication 24/7. This creates work cultures that are harmful for people with or without disabilities.

“It teaches us that our value is based on what we are producing and how quickly we are producing it,” says Brown.

“In a society that values productivity, being disabled and being unable to work is seen as the most scary thing, and that makes people afraid of us,” says Kessler. “I long for a society where we value people just for being human rather than being productive.” 

How to support disabled coworkers

While disabled people clearly face barriers in the workplace due to the systemic problem of ableism, there are steps employees can take in addition to advocating for better healthcare and more flexible attendance policies.

For people who don’t have a disability but might work with others who do, both Brown and Kessler encourage direct communication. It is important for managers and coworkers not to assume what others need. Have thoughtful and open conversations about how people would like to be treated.

“Something that happens to folks who are visibly disabled is that people talk about them rather than to them, or make assumptions about what they can or can’t do without actually checking with them,” Kessler says.

“If you care about the people you work with, it makes sense then to take time to get to know them,” Brown says.

*Author’s note: Some people prefer the language “person with a disability” to describe themselves. Others, including Brown and Kessler, prefer “disabled person.” This article has used the identity-first language of “disabled person” throughout because of the sources’ preferences. Always ask a person their preference.

About our sources

Liz Kessler is a disabled activist, self-professed data nerd and writer whose work focuses on learning disabilities, neurodiversity and mental health. She co-founded the first disabled-led online support group for loved ones of people with Nonverbal Learning Disorder and has led workshops on accessibility in a variety of contexts. She also works as a nonprofit professional. She's currently based in Winnipeg, and you can follow her on Twitter @e_kess. 

Lydia X. Z. Brown is an advocate for disability justice focused on addressing and ending interpersonal and state violence targeting disabled people at the margins of the margins. They are Policy Counsel for the Privacy & Data Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology; Director of Policy, Advocacy, & External Affairs at the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network; Founder and Volunteer Director of the Fund for Community Reparations for Autistic People of Color's Interdependence, Survival, & Empowerment; and Adjunct Lecturer in Disability Studies for the Department of English at Georgetown University.

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