Enabling Equity: Disability Justice as Part of an Empowered Workplace Culture
TCC Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer
As my mother and I stood at the counter of a shipping store, the clerk helping us regularly turned her head away while talking softly. I could read the confusion and frustration on my mother’s face as she asked for the third time that the clerk speak up. Finally, I took over the transaction and we left.
If you look at my mother, you might not think “disability” or “accommodation.”
That’s largely because we tend to think of disability as visible and physical, and the
so-called “universal” symbol of a wheelchair only reinforces those stereotypes. Though it’s possible that we might not notice her hearing aids or realize that she’s reading our lips, we likely would – if we developed new ways of knowing and understanding.
The reality is that disabilities are really diverse and learning about and then accommodating them is incredibly important. Why? Well, it’s the right thing to do if we want to build inclusive and equitable cultures. But another reality is that over 1 in 4 North Americans have a disability. Thus, we have a vested interest in making our workplaces as accommodating and inclusive as possible.
Barriers to Inclusion
Before we get there, though, let’s consider some of the barriers to inclusion:
I’d guess that most of us would say the first bulleted point is the biggest barrier, and in some places, it might be. And certainly, too few workplaces are addressing accommodations as completely as they could, whether that’s in terms of large print copies of communications for people with impaired vision, integrating Braille signage for all offices, meeting rooms, and restrooms, or including mental health and mindset management in benefits and paid time off policies. It might also include advocacy that reminds employees to speak clearly and loudly for people like my
But I think that social attitudes and stigma remain the biggest barrier for people with disabilities. I’ll refer to this stigma as ableism – the structural discrimination against disabled people (intentional or unintentional) that often rests on widely-shared stereotypes that people with disabilities are “less than,” that they need to be “fixed” in one way or the other. It’s not about individual bias (for instance, not liking freckles) but about system-wide stigma against disabled people. We learn ableism in a number of ways: through the erasure of disabled characters in media, through the valuation we tend to put on independence, and through any number of “rules” that regulate social interactions.
For instance, most of us have been taught that we’re supposed to look someone in the eye to indicate that we’re paying attention. But this may be difficult for an Autistic person.
This doesn’t mean that they’re not paying attention and listening – just that they have a different way of processing that interaction than I might. To assume that everyone does (or should) communicate in the same way is – well, ableist.
Why It Matters
As I’ve said, between 25 -30% of us identify as disabled, and incidence of mental health disabilities in particular are on the rise, especially in the wake of COVID-19 and especially long-term COVID symptoms. There’s been some movement -- in 1990, the U.S. government passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires all public places to
accommodate disabilities. But a number of roadblocks remain. In fact, a recent report notes that “Only about 60 percent of employees who could benefit from a workplace accommodation actually had one.” (Maestas and Mullen 2019).
What Can We Do?
Becoming aware of our unconscious biases is a first step (though none too easy). It’s hard
to diminish cultural norms, even if we ourselves are disabled or have family or friends who
have a disability. Being flexible and open-minded is important. So is educating ourselves about ableism. Here’s a great resource to get you started:
Including disabled people in planning for and implementing accommodations is another good idea. I can think of a recent example in a building I frequent. The architects had built wheelchair accessible double doors to keep out cold weather, but only one set had a button to open the doors, and they timed the doors to open and shut based on someone walking at a good clip. In more than one instance, a wheelchair user got stuck between the sets of doors (there was no internal button). This was so easily avoidable!
I’ll discuss built environment accommodations in a future blog, but for now, I’ll add a couple more suggestions. One is to ask. Ask how people identify (person-first? As a person with a disability? Or identity first – as an Autistic person, for instance?). Ask them what you AND your workplace can to do accommodate them, to make the space and the workplace culture as accessible as possible. And then listen and take action to integrate their suggestions.
My mother spent most of her adult life hiding her hearing aids. Once, when I asked her if she thought of herself as having a disability, her answer was immediate: no. Two days later, she called me and said, “I’ve thought a lot about your question, and I think I do have a disability.” When we talked about why she might have initially resisted saying “yes,” she said, “I guess I see having a disability as negative.” Her position has since changed,
and she now advocates for herself with courage and consistency.
Today, her hearing aids are visible. Unfortunately, too often, even that doesn’t guarantee adequate accommodations. But awareness is a great first step towards change.
And the fact that you’re reading this blog is awesome.
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