Ableism refers to the discrimination against individuals with disabilities or those perceived to have disabilities.
What is ableism?
The definition of ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities. Thus, ableism denies individuals with disabilities the same opportunities and privileges afforded to those without.
The term is rooted in the belief that those with disabilities are inferior to those without disabilities.
Derived from the word “able”
The term “ableism” derives from the word “able”, suggesting that those who are able-bodied are superior to those with disabilities.
Ableism perpetuates the idea that disability is a negative attribute and that individuals with disabilities cannot achieve success, independence – or even happiness.
Perpetuated by societal norms
Ableism can manifest in many ways and take many forms. It is perpetuated by societal norms and structures that prioritize able-bodied individuals and stigmatize those with disabilities.
This can lead to negative consequences for disabled people, such as decreased access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities.
Conscious and unconscious ableism
Ableism can be seen in the form of conscious and unconscious bias, as both perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Therefore, it is essential to recognize and address these biases to create a more inclusive and equitable society.
You can learn about the difference between the two types of bias below.
Unconscious biases are often deeply ingrained and challenging to recognize as they operate beneath our conscious awareness. Although unintentional, it can lead to discriminatory behavior without our conscious knowledge.
For instance, one may have an unconscious bias against individuals who use wheelchairs, perceiving them as weak or incapable. Such biases can manifest subtly, such as avoiding eye contact or assuming that someone with a disability is incapable of performing a particular task.
Conscious bias, on the other hand, is deliberate and intentional. It is expressed through negative attitudes or discriminatory behaviors towards people with disabilities – such as using derogatory terms and language or denying them opportunities due to their disability.
An example is the assumption that someone with a physical disability cannot participate in physical activity, even when they express an interest and the capability to do so.
Ableist language and alternatives
The language we use can perpetuate ableist attitudes and beliefs. In fact, the most common example of ableism is usually the conscious or unconscious use of so-called ableist language.
Ableist language is often normalized in society in such a manner that we don’t even realize we are using it. Words such as “idiot”, “crazy”, “insane”, “lame”, “blind” or “deaf” are all common examples used everyday.
Using such language can reinforce negative stereotypes. Aside from any direct offense it may cause, it also helps spread the idea that stigmatizing someone with a disability is acceptable.
Using first-person language, such as “person with a disability”, rather than labeling someone solely by their disability, is a more respectful and inclusive way of communicating compared to the first example.
Ableism in the workplace
Ableism in the workplace continues to be one of the types of discrimination that remains widely socially acceptable. And like other forms of discrimination, ableism in the workplace is a problem.
For example, individuals with disabilities experience discrimination in the hiring process, even if they are qualified and capable for the job they applied for. Another example is inaccessible physical spaces, which make it difficult for disabled people to perform their job duties or even access different areas of the workplace.
While it is rare to see overt examples of ableist attitudes and actions today, it doesn’t mean that ableism in the workplace isn’t a problem today.
Ableism can present itself in more subtle ways, including but not limited to the following:
- Speaking to employees with disabilities like one would toward a child in voice or posture.
- Giving employees with disabilities a lighter workload than their non-disabled co-workers.
- Using pejorative disability-related terminology
Addressing ableism in the workplace
Some of the examples above can be done by well-meaning co-workers, which is why they fall under the category of unintentional, unconscious bias.
The solution to eliminating that type of bias is to address it and create awareness.
Employers must recognize what their disabled co-workers can accomplish in the workplace to create an environment that allows workers with disabilities to contribute.
Normalize disabilities and provide relevant education
To properly address and manage ableism in the workplace, employers must normalize disabilities and provide relevant education and awareness for the employees.
As prejudice often stems from ignorance, education is an incredible tool to combat this, where employees learn about the importance of creating an inclusive workplace.
Here is a list of other ways to combat ableism in the workplace:
- Providing reasonable accommodations
- Promoting diversity and inclusion initiatives
- Eliminating discrimination in the hiring process