Disabling Ableism: How to Challenge Ableism in the Workplace

Whilst society and the workplace are becoming more diverse and inclusive, discrimination still exists for many people. There are 13.9 million disabled people in the UK and 19% of working-age adults are disabled. Despite this, most of the time workplaces, like wider society, are predominately engineered for able-bodied people. 


What is Ableism? 

Ableism is a form of discrimination that, whether overtly or not, assumes that able-bodied people are superior to disabled people. Stopabelism.org defines ableism as “A set of practices and beliefs that assign inferior value (worth) to people who have developmental, emotional, physical or psychiatric disabilities.” Essentially an ableist society treats non-disabled people as the model or standard for what is deemed “normal living” which sustains discrimination, unfair treatment and inequality towards disabled people. Most of the time unfair treatment of disabled people isn’t intentional, rather, it occurs out of misunderstanding and not being able to fully understand what it’s like to live with a disability, but sometimes it is intentional. Either way, ableism is extremely damaging in both work and the wider world and it needs to be challenged. 

How to challenge Ableism 

An inclusive world is a better place for everyone. We’ve compiled some practical steps you can take if you’re concerned or are witnessing ableism at work or in society. 

Through the power of education 

Education about what it’s like to live with a disability, different types of disabilities, and how many people live with disabilities is crucial for developing the awareness required to combat ableism. If you’re not disabled or don’t know anyone living with a disability, you may not realise how common discrimination against disabled people is. Disabilities come in many forms, and not all are visible, some disabilities are invisible but are still as difficult to live with. To avoid allowing ableism to continue or even occur in the first place, educating yourself about different disabilities and aiming to build general knowledge and awareness in yourself about how discrimination takes form is a step towards a more inclusive society or workplace.

The National Centre on Disability and Journalism has curated a useful list of resources for learning about the impacts of different disabilities. Crossplag also have  a great resource here which covers accounting for students with disabilities. Other ways to learn more about disabilities is to utilise the internet and seek out YouTube videos, social media posts, and interviews with disabled people detailing their lived experience.

Through language and vocabulary

Language and vocabulary behold extraordinary power to influence change or sustain inequality and oppression. The simple choice of using one word in favour of the other can be the difference between offending someone or not. The same is true for the role of language in challenging ableism in the workplace. One of the biggest problems in combatting disability discrimination is how common the use of wrong or outdated terminology is and how that makes disabled people feel dehumanised and devalued. Being conscientious with your language and holding those around you accountable to do the same is a productive and highly effective way to make everyone feel genuinely included.

Through your support and time

Pledging your support, whether financially or with your time and attention, to disability charities and awareness groups and organisations is a great way to educate yourself further on the prevalence of ableism. It can also help those groups to keep going and keep connecting with the right people. One of the best ways to learn about the challenges involved in living and working with a disability is to spend time with someone going through it. So often because people may be afraid of saying the wrong thing to a disabled person, they end up avoiding spending time with them, which is counterproductive.

The Mobility Resource has an excellent resource on how to interact with disabled people, here are some of the key points:

  • Ask before helping or providing assistance
  • Introduce yourself when talking to someone who is visually impaired
  • Remember that terms like ‘people with disabilities’ or ‘disabled person’ should only be used in written form and not in speech or conversation with someone who is disabled, like this guide for example
  • Treat others as you’d like to be treated. It’s an age old rule, drilled into us from a young age, but it’s perhaps the most important sentence to remain true to

Ultimately, stopping ableist language and actions from taking place in any workplace is absolutely key to achieving genuine diversity and inclusion and attracting diverse and inclusive candidates to apply for future vacancies. Taking a step back to objectively assess the prevalence of ableism in your work environment and then committing to transformation, will lead to a more inclusive, more innovative, and better work culture for everyone.

To read more about having a disability in tech, click  here.