What is “ableism” in the workplace?

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“Ableism” is a form of disability discrimination — but it’s so culturally ingrained that it’s often hard to combat. Ableism is anything that devalues someone based on their disability — whether that disability is visible or not.

Here are some examples of ableism in the workplace:

  • Having an able-bodied individual invade a disabled individual’s personal space to physically assist them — often touching them — without being solicited or welcomed.
  • Mocking or dismissing someone who is suffering from an invisible disability with phrases like, “He’s mental,” or “She uses that ‘tired’ excuse a lot.”
  • Grabbing someone’s wheelchair without their permission in order to “help” them navigate a difficult turn or movement.
  • Grilling the disabled individual about personal matters related to their condition. Things like, “Is there any chance your cancer will spread?” or “What type of multiple sclerosis do you have?” are intrusive. They’re also frustrating when someone is trying to concentrate on their job and possibly even painful to discuss.
  • Making helpful suggestions about the latest fad diet, miracle cure or possible treatment that’s been seen on the internet — especially if it is being touted as a “cure-all” that can help just about any condition.
  • Making comments that suggest that willpower alone can help someone overcome a disability. For example, suggesting that a co-worker suffering from major depression can “snap out of it” by forcing himself or herself to get out and exercise or telling a co-worker with chronic fatigue syndrome to just “push through it.”

Ableism is destructive to the self-esteem of the disabled individual and it’s harmful to the workplace in general. It often denies the disabled person the autonomy they need and the right to control their own body or privacy. To be an ally to your disabled co-workers, avoid these kinds of behaviors and speak up when you see someone else doing them. A simple, “Hey, that’s not cool,” can help.

If you’ve suffered disability discrimination at work, you have rights. Talk to an attorney to find out more.