Disablism refers to discriminatory or abusive behavior toward people with disabilities. Often interchangeably used with the term ableism.

Disablism definition

Disablism can be defined as having a discriminatory behavior toward people with disabilities. It is sometimes interchangeably used with the term ableism. However, the term disablism is more commonly used in the United Kingdom, whereas ‘ableism’ tends to be more frequent in the United States and other English-speaking countries, including Australia and Canada.

Disablism can manifest consciously or unconsciously through people’s biases and attitudes. The way people relate to individuals with disabilities often occurs implicitly and it is therefore much harder to identify. Unconscious disablism can manifest in subtle ways, such as using derogatory language, making assumptions about a person’s abilities, or underestimating their potential. 

What is disability?

An estimated 1.3 billion people or about 16 percent of the global population experience some form of disability. Disability is defined as a physical or mental condition that limits an individual’s ability to move, perform everyday tasks, or participate in socioeconomic activities. Disabilities can vary widely, ranging from mobility impairments to sensory disabilities (such as blindness or deafness), cognitive or intellectual disabilities and mental health conditions.

Some examples of common human disabilities are:

What is disablism?

Inaccessible transportation, exclusion and limited social support are all common phenomena resulting from disablism meaning that many individuals who experience disability face significant barriers. These barriers can often restrict their access to essential services and socioeconomic opportunities.

Conscious disablism permeates all spheres of society, for example through discrimination in hiring, access to education and limited accessibility in public spaces. However, most people are not consciously aware of their disablist attitudes. 

Ignorance and a general lack of understanding has led to a societal separation that reinforces the stigma around people with disabilities, failing to appreciate the obstacles that prevent disabled people from participating in society. For example, in many places persons with limited mobility have their own separate buildings, restricted entrances to public institutions and special means of transport. 

Disablism and ableism

The terms disablism and ableism are often interchangeably used and, although there is some overlap, there are certain differences between the two:

Ableism can be described as how society tends to favor people without disabilities through laws, institutional policies and practices that perpetuate the idea that people with disabilities are not equal, and that they are less capable and thus less valuable. According to this idea, they should not be granted the same personal autonomy as abled people.

In general, disablism can be defined as more direct acts of discrimination against people with disabilities. These generally manifest in the form of practices and attitudes that denigrate a person on the basis of their disability. It is a specific form of prejudice, like racism, sexism or any other form of discrimination that targets a particular group based on a characteristic perceived as different or inferior.

Disablism in the workplace

Disablism runs on stigmatizing notions about people with disabilities as being “less” or “other.” It upholds harmful stereotypes and fosters an excluding environment that prevents individuals from enjoying equal opportunities. With 1 billion workers around the world living with disability, disablism in the workplace is common

In its most direct form, discrimination against disabled people occurs when one employee expresses prejudice toward another employee based on their disability. This may occur through comments, microaggressions or policies that target specifically staff members with disabilities. Inaccessible spaces also create a hostile environment that restrict persons with limited mobility from participating effectively in work-related activities, This leads to disadvantages in career advancement and professional development.

Examples of disablism in the workplace

In most countries, disability discrimination is against the law. Discriminatory hiring practices, inadequate accommodations that limit equal participation and negative attitudes that result in abuse can severely harm the rights and wellbeing of individuals with disabilities.

Some common examples of disability discrimination in the workplace are:

How to combat disablism in the workplace

Understanding and addressing the barriers that people with disabilities face in the workplace is key to combating disablism. It requires dismantling common misconceptions and prejudices about disabilities, promoting empathy and respect, and actively advocating for disability inclusion. 

Here are some effective strategies to address disability discrimination in the workplace: