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How ableism presents itself in the workplace

Supermarket worker with Down syndrome restocking food products

The conversation about ableism – intentional and unintentional discrimination that favors able-bodied people – in the workplace has expanded rapidly in recent years. According to the CDC, more than a quarter of adults in the U.S. have some form of disability, so workplace awareness is belatedly gaining traction.

Many of us are still learning about the less obvious ways that ableism creeps into everyday talk and actions. Here are a few things to be aware of.

Violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act

This is an obvious one. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been around since 1990 and employers should therefore be familiar with these laws. Violations can include not having accommodations for wheelchair users (ramps, handrails, elevators) and withholding opportunities and promotions from people based on their disability.

Mental health conditions are also protected under the ADA, including depression, anxiety and alcoholism.

Inappropriate language

With ableism awareness still in its relative infancy, people are often unaware that certain language can be viewed as offensive.

Seemingly benign statements like “Are you deaf?” and “I must be blind” fall under this definition. Using language in that context trivializes the challenges that hearing- and sight-impaired people struggle with every day.

Ableist slurs are another example. You may have grown up calling other kids “dumb,” “idiot,” “insane,” “spaz,” “lame,” “crippled” and “psycho,” but these terms directly and indirectly refer to legitimate physical and mental conditions. By using them as insults, even playfully, whether you mean to or not you are suggesting that people with these conditions are inferior.

“Helping” when help isn’t needed

People with disabilities live with these challenges every day. In most situations, they are capable of coping with a challenge on their own. An obvious example would be giving a push to someone in a wheelchair who is moving just fine.

Another example is grabbing a blind person’s arm and forcefully leading them somewhere. Never grab their arm, especially if they haven’t asked for assistance. If they ask for help, let them take your arm, which allows them to maintain control.

Employers can counter ableist behavior with training. Again, many people are completely unaware that their language or actions may be offensive to others. Education can minimize ableist behavior before it becomes a problem.

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