Welcome back to our series on systemic bias in the workplace. Over the course of several weeks, we’re spotlighting various categories of bias, including gender bias, racial bias, and now disability bias and ableism in the workplace. Our aim is to add to the ongoing conversation and help everyone build more inclusive environments. We hope you find it informative. Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.
15% of the global population—that’s 1 billion people—experience some form of disability.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 19.1% of US disabled people were employed in 2021, up from 17.9% the year before.
However, I do wonder if this number is actually a lot higher.
The difficulty with disability disclosures
Some people who have conditions such as depression, anxiety, autism, or ADHD don’t class themselves as disabled. Others whose health conditions have improved may not class themselves among this group either.
As someone with chronic pain, I have days where I feel disabled and days where I don’t.
And, while I’m open about my health issues, I wouldn’t discuss them with an employer unless I really had to.
Just because I’m comfortable talking about my health issues, that doesn’t mean I don’t notice the common reaction of the person I’m talking to. It usually involves squirming, frowning, or an abrupt change of subject. It doesn’t exactly make me feel listened to.
Many of my friends with disabilities feel the same. They wouldn’t ever check the box on those “equality” questionnaires to say that they are differently abled.
Especially not when 1 in 3 employers won’t hire someone with a disability. Even though not hiring someone because of a health condition is illegal.
It’s also illegal for an employer to ask someone if they’re differently abled in a job interview.
But they can ask them in those questionnaires.
And you can tell me they’re anonymized or not attached to job applications or any other excuse you like.
But I’ve never yet found evidence of them being used in someone’s favor, or purely for data. And stats like the ones in this article just prove my suspicions.
38% of people believe someone who’s disabled is a burden on society. Only 7% believe that mental illness counts as a disability.
Two thirds of people don’t see being hard of hearing as a disability. Which really shows that most people don’t know what a disability is.
What is a disability?
Let’s go back to basics for a moment. A disability is, according to the CDC:
Any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).
They go on to explain that a disability includes anything that impacts someone’s:
- Mental health
- Social relationships
Considering the stereotype is someone in a wheelchair, this list demonstrates that a disability goes much further than that and also includes conditions you can’t always see or easily define.
That means that discrimination laws in the workplace go further than you may think, too.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that:
To be protected by the ADA, one must have a disability, which is defined by the ADA as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments they cover.
(Bold text my own.)
Disabled or differently abled? Which term should you use?
This one really depends on who you speak to.
Some people dislike the word “disabled” because the “dis” implies that they’re not able to do something or that there’s something inherently wrong with them.
When really, the main reason someone who fits the criteria above can’t do something is often because of society, not their condition.
Differently abled is more inclusive and is less “othering” than “disabled.”
Personally, I don’t have a preference and flit between the two. But that’s just me.
If you’re unsure, I’d talk to the person(s) you know who are affected so that you can make an informed decision. You may find that different people have different preferences.
Disability in the workplace
Unfortunately, a third of differently abled employees have experienced disability bias and/or ableism in the workplace.
This can include people insulting, excluding, or underestimating them because of their disability. It can also involve people seeming uncomfortable around them solely for that reason.
Unsurprisingly, only 39% have disclosed their condition to their manager, and just 24% to colleagues.
Fear of discrimination is definitely a reason I’ve seen hold people back from disclosing their health issues. And, given the stats, discrimination is sadly pretty likely.
However, 65% of those who’ve disclosed their condition are more content at work.
I think it really depends on the culture. If somewhere is truly inclusive, the whole company will be supportive and take the right steps to help someone succeed in their role. Regardless of their disability status, gender, race, sexuality, religion, or anything else. Bias of any kind, including ableism in the workplace, has no place at these organizations.
What can employers do to support disabled employees?
It’s up to employees to ask for accommodations that they need in the workplace so that they can do their job.
Employers don’t always have to do exactly what the employee requests. They do need to come up with a similar solution that achieves the same outcomes, though.
For example, if a wheelchair user can’t get to their floor, you could install an elevator.
Or move their department on to the ground floor so that they’re still around their colleagues.
Somewhere I used to work moved a whole department on to the ground floor for a wheelchair user, making sure there were ramps in as many places as possible.
This person become a respected part of the company and happy in their role because their employer had taken steps to accommodate them, rather than giving in to ableism in the workplace.
This may seem like a lot of work. But we’ve all seen that meme asking different animals to climb a tree.
A fish can’t climb a tree, but does that make it useless? No. They do other important things in the world instead. And none of those things require them to climb trees.
So, the next time you’re hiring, or talking to a newly disabled employee (since any of us could become disabled at any time), remember to keep your bias in check.
And remember to ask what accommodations you could make so that they can succeed in their role, instead of wondering how they can work around you.
If you’re looking for new ways to counter bias and specifically ableism in the workplace, a platform that fosters real inclusion can help. With Workrowd, employees can join programs, groups, and events that highlight their intersectionality, and ensure that peers see them for more than any visible disabilities. If you’d like to learn more and explore how Workrowd can drive belonging at your organization, send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.