Ableism in the Workplace

inclusive workplace atmosphere with a person in a wheelchair seated at table demonstrating possible lack of ableism in the workplace

What is Ableism?

Ableism is a form of discrimination that is often overlooked, yet it affects millions around the world daily. It is defined as the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. This can manifest in various ways, from physical barriers that prevent access to subtle interactions that exclude or diminish. Ableism can occur in any aspect of life, but for this article we will focus on ableism in the workplace and the impact that this for both the employee and the employer.

What Does Ableism Look Like?

  • Inaccessible environments refusing wheelchair access.
  • Job descriptions unnecessarily requiring “physical mobility” or “ability to stand.”
  • Overlooking qualified candidates due to assumptions about their disabilities.
  • Media portrayals that depict disability only as inspirational or pitiable.
  • Casual language that demeans (e.g., “falling on deaf ears”).

adult with walking frame approaching escalators demonstrating ableism

Why Should We Care?

Addressing ableism is not just about avoiding discrimination—it’s about actively creating spaces that empower and include all individuals. It enriches our communities, enhances diversity, and drives innovation by ensuring everyone has the opportunity to contribute their unique perspectives and skills.

As professionals, it’s crucial we lead by example, fostering environments that challenge these biases and advocate for equality. How does your organisation address accessibility and inclusion? Do you have strategies in place? Let’s look at how we can collectively work to dismantle ableism in our professional spheres.

Ableism in the Workplace

A crucial aspect often overlooked in diversity and inclusion efforts is the systemic ableism that persists in many professional environments. Ableism in the workplace manifests through both visible and invisible barriers that prevent talented individuals with disabilities from securing employment or advancing in their careers.

Barriers to Employment and Advancement

  • Recruitment Processes:Job postings and interviews that are not accessible, or qualification criteria that unnecessarily exclude individuals with disabilities.
  • Workplace Culture:Subtle prejudices and misconceptions held by coworkers and management that can lead to discriminatory practices.
  • Professional Development:Limited access to training or advancement opportunities which are not tailored to diverse needs.
  • Physical and Digital Accessibility:Workspaces and tools that do not accommodate various disabilities, impacting productivity and inclusion.

work team including a person with disability

Why It Matters

Diversity isn’t just a metric to strive for; it’s a strategic advantage. Organisations that actively work to dismantle ableism open themselves up to a broader range of talents and perspectives, which can lead to enhanced creativity, better problem-solving, and greater employee satisfaction.

As leaders and colleagues, it’s our responsibility to advocate for changes that create truly inclusive environments. This includes rethinking how we hire, train, and support every member of our team.

Ableist language

Language shapes perception, influences culture, and has the power to create an environment of respect and inclusion or, unfortunately, one of exclusion and discrimination. In the professional world, the words we choose can significantly impact our colleagues, especially those with disabilities.

What is Inclusive Language?

Inclusive language avoids expressions or words that directly or indirectly exclude particular groups of people, including those with disabilities. This form of communication is mindful, considers diverse experiences, and respects all individuals’ dignity.

Examples of Non-Inclusive vs. Inclusive Language

  • Instead of saying “confined to a wheelchair,” use “wheelchair user.”
  • Replace “suffering from” with “living with” when referring to someone with a chronic illness or disability.
  • Avoid using disability as a metaphor (e.g., “blind to the facts”) and instead choose phrases that don’t marginalise (e.g., “unaware of the facts”).

ableism word cloud filled with ableist language

Why Does Language Matter in the Workplace?

Using inclusive language is not about political correctness; it’s about creating a workplace culture that respects and values everyone’s contributions equally. It helps in building a supportive community where all employees can thrive. By being mindful of our language, we send a message of respect and show that we value diversity and inclusion.

Ableism, discrimination based on disability, not only undermines human rights but also has profound economic implications. The systemic barriers that prevent individuals with disabilities from full participation in the workforce not only affect their economic stability but also impact the broader economy.

Economic Challenges Posed by Ableism

  • Reduced Employment Opportunities:Many qualified individuals with disabilities are overlooked due to misconceptions about their abilities, resulting in lower employment rates among the disabled compared to the non-disabled population.
  • Wage Disparity:Even when employed, workers with disabilities often face wage gaps, earning less than their non-disabled counterparts for the same roles.
  • Limited Career Advancement:Career growth opportunities are frequently less accessible for disabled employees due to workplace barriers, both physical and cultural.

The Broader Economic Impact of Ableism in the Workplace

  • Untapped Talent Pool: By not fully integrating skilled workers with disabilities, industries lose out on a diverse range of perspectives that can drive innovation and problem-solving.
  • Increased Dependency on Support Services: Higher unemployment and underemployment among disabled individuals can lead to increased reliance on public assistance programs, which impacts economic systems and reduces the available workforce.

woman using sign language in the workplace while on zoom meeting

The Path Forward

  • Inclusive Hiring Practices: Employers can adopt more inclusive recruitment strategies to ensure that job opportunities are accessible to all, regardless of disability.
  • Workplace Accommodations: Simple modifications or flexible work arrangements can make a significant difference in enabling employees with disabilities to perform to their full potential.
  • Awareness and Training: Educating management and staff about ableism and how to combat it can create a more inclusive culture that values all employees equally.

As we strive to build more inclusive societies, understanding and addressing the economic dimensions of ableism is crucial. Every step towards inclusion not only helps individuals but also benefits our economy by creating a more diverse and resilient workforce.