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How Ableism Shows Up At Work (& What to Do About It).

ableism at work

Working in an environment built for able-bodied people can be a disabling for neurodivergent people. While many workplaces are trying to create more inclusive environments, it’s still important to be mindful of how ableism shows up in the workplace. Here are four ways that ableism may show up in your office and what you might be able to do about it.

First, what is ableism?

Ableism, or discrimination against people with disabilities, is one of many forms of oppression. This means that ableism is not only a problem for those with disabilities; it affects all people who are marginalized by disability and disability stigma. The beliefs and attitudes that support ableism are rooted in anti-blackness which include normalized ideas like:

  • Disability is bad and worthy of pity
  • Disabled people are inferior to non-disabled people
  • Disabled people need to be protected from themselves

These beliefs support the idea that disabled people should be segregated from society because they, supposedly, can’t function as well as others. They also suggest that disabled individuals need extra protection in order to survive in this world—protection that non-disabled folks don’t require because they are “normal.” These ideas permeate through different aspects of life and society, including education, employment, and entertainment. The result is a society that doesn’t offer equitable opportunities for disabled people—especially those who are multiply marginalized.

Ableism in the workplace

When disabled people are consistently denied access to society’s resources, then the workplace will not necessarily be an easy place for them.

Though employers in the United States may be legally required to provide reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities, many small companies are unaware of their responsibilities, or are unwilling to make the necessary changes. As a result, disabled people are much less likely to be employed than those who are not disabled.

Ableism can manifest itself in subtle ways that are hard to notice, but once you do the work to unlearn your own internalized ableism,  it becomes much more apparent. The following examples show how ableism shows up in the workplace interpersonally:

  • Making fun of others for having physical or mental disabilities.
  • Making jokes about people with disabilities.
  • Using the words “crazy” or “insane” to describe someone’s actions.
  • Asking a person if they’re on drugs or have an addiction
  • Assuming someone is lying because of their disability (for example, believing that a person who has ADHD is always making things up)
ableism at work
Photo by Tim Gouw

Types of ableism in the workplace

Disabled people are often discriminated against, and while this discrimination may arise from ignorance or a lack of awareness, it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for an organization or business to be treating you poorly. Disabled people are often treated as if they are less competent than non-disabled people, which can have an impact on hiring and promotion decisions. We an see this when managers use language to diminish a person’s ability by describing them as less intelligent, capable or otherwise competent than they truly are, due to their disability. (For example, “He is blind, so he must not be very smart.”)

Ableism shows up in all kinds of covert ways at the workplace that can make it hard for those who are disabled. For example:

  • How employers advertise jobs without thinking about whether or not they would be suitable for someone on the spectrum (like asking for experience using Excel).
  • Physical barriers that block people with disabilities from entering buildings or accessing public spaces (a common example being a narrow doorway).
  • Policies that limit the kinds of jobs available to people who have physical or mental disabilities. For example, a policy that prohibits workers unable to life 25 pounds when that is not a large need of their job.
  • Managers who don’t consider hiring disabled people when they’re hiring new employees.

These various forms contribute to an environment where ableist attitudes are accepted as normal and acceptable—and can lead to dehumanizing treatment from coworkers and supervisors alike.

How to deal with ableist behavior

If you have noticed ableist language and attitudes in your workplace, you can do a few things to address the problem. First, identify where the ableism is happening. Is it an attitude that one person has? Are there policies or practices in place that prevent disabled people from getting jobs, promotions, or having a safe work environment? If so, consider talking to your manager about it, or start a conversation among coworkers who have noticed the same thing if you feel safe to do so. From here, you can partner with the people you trust to address the problem together–like reviewing and updating ableist policies or work practices.

If you are treated unequally in the workplace because of your disability, familiarize yourself with anti-discrimination laws. For example, if the boss or coworkers are discriminating against you because of your disability, it’s important to know that there are laws in place to protect you from this kind of treatment. You can also talk to an employment lawyer about what options may be available if you feel unsafe at work. Other options include:

  • Talking to your manager or HR. If ableist comments are coming from someone in management, you can try talking with them directly and explaining why they’re harmful. This is a good way to get their attention if they aren’t aware of how ableism shows up in their workplace.
  • Consider mediation. If you are still having trouble resolving the issue on your own, you can consider filing a complaint with your state’s Division of Human Rights–like the New York Division of Human Rights.
  • You can also consider filing with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They can help negotiate a process that is agreeable to all parties and does not leave you alone to feel threatened or intimidated.
  • Talking with legal counsel about taking legal action against the company where you work if necessary, especially if you’ve been dealing with workplace bullying. If you’re considering legal action, keep in mind that it may cost time and money while waiting for resolution—and not always easy on low-income earners. Be to sure to talk with your lawyer about the likelihood about winning the case, and any financial concerns you might have while pursuing this option.

If you feel like your job is in danger because of discrimination, there are resources available to help. For instance, the EEOC provide resources on their website for different types of discrimination which can help you assess whether or not your employer has discriminated against you because of your disability. You can also contact the EEOC directly for more information about workplace discrimination laws.

We deserve inclusive workplaces.

Ableism is a form of discrimination that shows up everywhere, even in the workplace, and it can cause job seekers to be overlooked for employment opportunities. The workplace is an important part of life in a society where we have to ‘make a living’ just to survive. Especially when you are neurodivergent and disabled, the workplace can be a place where you are forced to assimilate, or at least appear to. If you are looking for work and have been turned down because of your disability, it is important that you understand what legal options may be available to ensure your rights as an employee in the U.S.

Takeaway: People with disabilities need more than just benefits at work—they also deserve inclusive workplaces where their unique needs are met!

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