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Ableism in the workplace: how employers can combat discrimination

In the more than three decades since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed, signs of progress are there. In many public spaces, at least, consideration is given to how they can be made available to people with varying levels of physical ability. But even with nominal strides in accessibility and inclusion for those who are differently-abled, there are still major gaps and areas for significant improvement.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, unemployment has always been high for disabled Americans and has risen since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. This means there’s much work for individual organizations to do, in order to help ensure that talented, qualified workers aren’t being frustrated and forced out of the workplace for lack of accommodation.

If your organization is looking to be more proactive in combating discrimination against disabled employees, there are steps you can take to become more disability-friendly.

Ableism is an insidious form discrimination

When we think of discrimination in the workplace, we often think first of racial, ethnic, or gender discrimination, and then target diversity and inclusion initiatives to those major areas. However, people who have disabilities have also faced decades of systemic bias and discrimination. And as with other kinds of bias, ableism (prejudice against people living with mental or physical disabilities) can be both conscious or unconscious.

In fact, the prejudice can be as blatant as not offering any kind of accessible facilities, but it can also be a total lack of thought when it comes to disabled employees. Ignoring the realities of disability, minimizing them, is an unconscious way of saying, “You can be like everyone else if we just ignore the differences.” This can stigmatize employees living with disabilities and prevent them from participating fully in the workplace.

Be open to feedback and insight from employees

As with any other kind of inclusivity progress, the first step is talking to one of your greatest resources–your team. Feedback on how things are working for employees is crucial. You don’t need to put employees who identify as disabled on the spot but can instead reach out to all employees in your organization. Anonymous surveys can help you get more honest feedback from people, but they can also capture the opinions of people who might not have visible disabilities or people who might be hesitant to come forward otherwise.

Be mindful of the language you use

One of the most subtle aspects of ableism is the language we use, often without thinking twice. Words like “blind,” “deaf,” “lame,” “crazy,” or “deaf” might seem mild in conversation. For someone living with a disability, they can be alienating–especially given that most of these words are used negatively. Being more mindful of the language used in all workplace settings is a baseline change to make. Understanding that these words carry power for disabled people is an important first step to mindfulness. The next step is noticing when these words are used negatively to describe someone or something that is not affected by that disability. And if they are used, consider more appropriate words to use instead.

Don’t make assumptions for force disabled employees into “otherness”

People with disabilities may need different accommodations, but that doesn’t mean they want special treatment, or to be singled out for their disability. It’s important to acknowledge people with disabilities, so as not to minimize their existence or their needs, but at the same time, don’t assume that everyone living with a disability wants to be called out as “brave” or treated with kid gloves for simply living their lives.

It’s also important not to assume you know or understand anyone’s disability just from looking at them or based on what you’ve heard from others. Some disabilities are less visible than others. It’s impossible to know what someone’s going through on the outside, even if (as HR) you may feel like you have more insight than others into a person’s work life.

Review accessibility in all aspects of the business

Many organizations do the bare minimum of what’s required by the ADA: wheelchair-accessible restrooms or braille versions of signs, etc. That doesn’t mean that you have comprehensive accessibility for people with disabilities. It’s time to think about how every aspect of your workplace comes across to people with a variety of needs. Are common areas, conference rooms, and desks user-friendly to someone with mobility issues? Are written signs truly accessible to a deaf person whose first language might be American Sign Language? Are there accessibility features for blind or deaf users built into tech tools, like meeting software and communication apps?

Be flexible on individual accommodations

Flexible work arrangements have taken on new importance ever since Covid made most companies rethink, basically overnight, about what work looks like outside of the office. Having remote work options can be helpful to those with disabilities, but it’s important to remain flexible, even as many offices mandate returns to the office and a more traditional workday. Consider making flexible work hours and at-home accommodations more readily available to those who request them.

Focus on welcoming and hiring employees with disabilities

Going back to the alarmingly high unemployment rates among people with disabilities, many people feel excluded from the traditional hiring process. Many companies aren’t willing to offer accommodations, or they’re not clear on what they can do to support workers with disabilities. And in many cases, it’s purely ableism rearing its head–the idea that employees without disabilities are the prized default, and other applicants are second tier.

Your commitment to supporting the disabled community can and should be clear in your employer brand, and in your public-facing recruiting and job postings. You can also start looking for alternative recruitment sources, such as disability-focused job posting sites. There are also organizations like the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN), which offer resources to employers looking to hire disabled employees and support inclusivity.

Educate your team on accessibility and inclusivity

Any diversity or inclusivity program is only as good as its ongoing training. HR-led initiatives can get things rolling, but what creates lasting change is making sure everyone is aware, mindful, and supportive of differences. The goal here is normalizing conversations around disability, and making it clear that accommodations aren’t special treatment, but rather a necessary equalizer to make sure everyone has a safe, productive work environment.

Everyone in your company–regardless of disability status, culture, religion, race, or gender–should feel included and valued. By embracing disability concerns as a priority, you show that employees with disabilities are full members of the team. Acknowledging ableism is an important first step, but true inclusivity goes far beyond recognizing differences. The support you build now will help ensure that employees with and without disabilities can thrive and have productive careers with your organization.

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