A professional duty

Ableism in the workplace

The word ‘ableism’ has gained much currency these past few years. I have noticed the hashtag increasingly being used by the disabled community across social media. However, it seems not to have reached the consciousness of some, and is a mystery too many in the workplace. 

For Disabled people, certainly the activists among us, having the word – ableism – is hugely significant! As it is a huge step towards nuance, in conversations about the prejudice, discrimination and inequality the disabled population face. The word represents a parity to sexism, classism, homophobia, racism, religious intolerance in conversations about equality, diversity and inclusive practice.… adding specific ideas to the conversations about the organisational, institutional and structural injustice weighing on many individuals.

A working definition:

Without a definition there is no way of articulating the characteristic discrimination the disabled population face.  Giving words to ableism, makes sure it is recognised – it exist! By saying ‘ableism’ we voice a reality that we then acknowledge more fully. Based on the many texts I have read, I work to two definitions:

Ableism: a specific type of oppression imposed on the disabled population, akin to homophobia, racism, classism, ageism, and sexism, held in the language and culture in which we have wider debates.

Anti-ableist: a defined position against ableism, similar to a feminist or an anti-racist position. Where ableism is defined as specific in it harmful and widespread nature with distinct characteristics. 

In the workplace more specifically, ableism can be identified as oppressive ideas constitute pattern of discrimination. These beliefs[1] [negative on the whole] can influence professional language, working practice, guidance &policy, and the organisational culture overall. The impact of what we believe can be observed in conversations between individuals, in working groups, and department ‘rules’. At board level, typically lack of articulation of these matters, can be seen between and beyond organisations – sectors and institutions. At an operational level, a professional choice of language can make a difference. But, more significantly, atstrategic levels where culture frames practice and documentation, ableism can flourish – as absence of recognition – in the ideas influencing conversations about disability. 

Working values

As a professional, I work as an anti-ableist, in addition to my job. This means that I seek to articulate an opposition to the ableism I find in text – and conversations. I do not expect, let alone demand, that others identify as Disabled,  I alter my practice for disabled people to feel safe. I know that as individuals we may not share the same experience, or have the same interests, or agree with the same politics. However, the disabled population faces inequality nevertheless, so addressing this disadvantage is the least I can do to mitigate its existence. Challenging the oppressive ideas that harm I think of as a duty – a professional imperative. I think it should not be expected of individuals to be both in receipt of harm, to have to articulate it and to argue for its existence. It is an organisational priority to tackle it. I take my anti-stance as a professional as my duty, it is central to my role as a disability equality advisor, but not because I identify or have impairment[s].

While the lived experience of workers/clients is an essential factor in getting things right for disabledindividuals.  This is both hard and expensive to be responsive, particularly a counter-culture where lived experience is erased where strategic decisions are made. Furthermore, professionals should not be put in a position where the onus is on them to ask their colleagues and clients for personal views on discrimination and equality. Furthermore Disabled authors have already gone to great effort to share their experience –testimony abounds. Surely, it is up to the business community to count the cost of the discrimination and the injustice it creates. 

Looking beyond issues of identity is critical, while the predicament of impairment or difference is significant, it does not go far enough to explain the startling figures that characterise the inequality the disabled population face. Yet it is an inequality many cannot put a word to, despite its toxicity and omnipresence in the storytelling that surrounds us. Notwithstanding the experience of individuals but while allowing choice of identity, I act to disrupt the institutional and societal narratives that perpetuate ableism.

In the same way that critical race theory has given us a language to articulate the racism people face, critical disability theory has led to a growing terminology for the institutional and societal discrimination imposed on disabled people as a marginalised group. As a specific, insidiously hidden discrimination, ableism has a unique character. The idea that ableism sits on a continuum at the opposite end to ability is to misunderstand the meaning of marginalisation. If there is an opposite, it isn’t perfection, skill or ability, but a lack of privilege. A lack of questioning afforded by assumed belonging owing to unquestioned skill, symmetry and beauty. It is the notion of ‘able’ as norm that defines the unearned privilege afforded to those who do not need to answer questions about their difference. Beyond individual experience, ableism is held in conversations at group, department, organisational, local and national levels. Each holding a distinct way of silencing, or distorting, the voice of disabled people by denying their experience, domesticating their ideas, appropriating their knowledge or refusing to theorise their divergent perspectives.

It is not that people go out of their way to speak badly of disabled individuals, more so that we’ve been so accustomed believe the what we hear about them – if they are mentioned at all. in the media, disabled people are painted as saints and sinners that laud or vilify their individual stories. In the workplace these stories are dosmesticated in a storytelling that erases interest, politics in which the voice of disabled people as individuals is moulded or ignored to suit to organisational account. 

When written into guidance, policy and strategy, the assumptions derived from the saint/sinner stereotype become apparent, if not as a caricature, more often dismissed altogether. That’s to say most workers drafting documents will forget to think of the disabled population as a sizeable entitled to parity. Forgotten are the interests, replaced is the stereotype of the isolated individual needing to get off their backside – because the saints are doing it so valiantly. Ableism is not written into organisational accounts, rather audits, reviews, external communications, and annual reports generally fail to name the negative impact of business on the disabled population. Thus the written words fail to articulate an opposition to ableism within a sector, or the injustice in society more widely.  


[1] (Gladwell, 2008)

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