While there are many “isms”—sexism, racism, ageism, etc.—one form of discrimination rarely gets discussed: ableism.
Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. It can show up in various forms and settings, including micro-aggressions, stereotyping, or discriminatory recruiting practices at work. Unfortunately, much of this discrimination goes unaddressed mainly due to a general lack of education and understanding.
Experiences of discrimination and oppression have negative impacts on mental health. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults with disabilities report experiencing frequent mental distress almost five times as often as adults without disabilities. To support the mental well-being of peers with disabilities, companies can take steps toward creating a safe and accessible workplace.
We spoke to registered social worker Katherine Ridolfo, who specializes in working with clients with disabilities, on the misconceptions about individuals with disabilities, the types of discrimination they face, and how workplaces can be more inclusive.
Misconceptions about disabilities and ableism in the workplace
Many misconceptions about those with disabilities can perpetuate ableism in the workplace. One of the most common misconceptions, says Ridolfo, is that all disabilities are visible. “People assume disabilities are always visible, and you can easily know when someone has one, but that is absolutely not true,” she says. For instance, a person in a wheelchair may be easily identified as having a physical disability, whereas the challenges someone with a diagnosis of mental illness or a learning disability may face may go unseen. This lack of awareness can create barriers to accessibility when non-visible disabilities are not addressed or accommodated.
Another big misconception leading to workplace discrimination is that the work of individuals with disabilities is less valuable.“Starting right from recruitment, even though an individual may be qualified, they may be passed up for a job because of their disability,” Ridolfo says. But the challenges don’t just stop at recruiting. “Salary disparities are also common, particularly with people who have a developmental disability. Even though they do the same, meaningful work, they get a much smaller income.” According to the Government of Canada, persons identified with milder disabilities earn 12 per cent less than those without, and those with severe disabilities earn 51 per cent less. This discrimination also extends to promotion possibilities: “[Promotion decisions are] often based on assumptions of what people can and cannot do; and as a result, the work of those with disabilities may be less valued,” she says.
5 ways organizations can create a more inclusive workplace
With a third of our lives spent at work—in roles that can shape our social lives, our sense of self and our economic possibilities—it’s critical that we all feel safe and supported at our jobs. If you’re an employee or employer looking to create a more healthy, inclusive workplace for your peers with disabilities, here are a few steps you can take.
1. Adapt to accessibility legislations
The Accessible Canada Act and Americans with Disabilities Act are federal laws that seek to remove barriers to accessibility and develop legislation that ensures greater inclusion of individuals with disabilities. Ridolfo says, "these are the frameworks employers can use to start implementing more accessible practices into their workplaces.”
Ridolfo mentions that education and understanding of disabilities are essential to create a more inclusive and supportive workplace. “There must be buy-in from leadership, which will ultimately filter down into the operations of a business,” she says. Do your part to learn about different types of disabilities and the unique challenges that these individuals may face.
3. Provision of accommodations
According to Ridolfo, inaccessibility is another way workplaces can be discriminatory. To combat this, employers must incorporate alternative adjustments for those who require things like extra breaks or exclusively remote work. She mentions that “these accommodations need to be tailored almost individually wherever possible.”
Ridolfo also introduces the idea of ‘universal utopian spaces’ where everybody has equal access to all functions and activities of the workspace regardless of their abilities. “For some, this may mean things like accessible bathrooms and elevators,” she says. “For others, a ‘universal utopian space’ may include additional technological support, assisted devices, or interpretation services (like ASL) if needed.”
4. Use of inclusive language
“We really have to make an effort to use the right terminology,” Ridolfo says. “We don’t always have the right answers, and we won’t always know.” She encourages us to ask about our peer’s personal preferences and to include them in conversations on fostering more inclusive work environments.
Ridolfo also encourages staff to use "People First Language," which emphasizes the individuality of people with disabilities rather than defining them primarily by their disability. This includes language such as a person with depression or a disability rather than "the mentally disordered" or "the handicapped." Language is insidious and shapes people's thinking: It is essential to use the correct terminology and stay educated to stop the perpetuation of ableism in the workplace.
5. Equal recognition
Recognizing the contributions of all employees, regardless of abilities, is essential for creating an inclusive workplace. “A lot of the time, the work of individuals with disabilities is seen as less valuable than others. Employees may not be seen as equal, [for example] where the possibility of career acceleration is different,” Ridolfo says. “It is crucial to make things accessible overall. For example, if there was a competition of some sort, employers should make it inclusive so that everyone can be a part of it.”
Disclaimer: This article contains guidelines or advice not intended to self-diagnose or treat. No content should be used as a substitute for direct advice from a qualified professional such as your doctor or mental health professional. Please reach out for support from a certified professional related to the symptoms you may be experiencing.
If you are in crisis and require immediate support, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. Alternately, please contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 (24/7). For residents of Québec, call 1 866 APPELLE (1 866 277-3553).