When evaluating ways to prevent and tackle ableism in your workplace, it’s important that you don’t assume the lived experience of every disabled person is the same. There is a spectrum of identities and privileges among people with disabilities that shape their perspectives and, sadly, the levels of discrimination they may face.
For example, a white disabled man is unlikely to face the same level of discrimination as a Muslim disabled woman or a Black disabled transman. These intersecting layers of identity mean a person can struggle against multiple biases at the same time, intensifying their feelings of marginalisation.
Understanding this intersectionality is therefore vitally important for helping disabled people bring their true selves and full potential to the workplace. Learning from the experiences of just one person will not give you a full view of how others have lived their lives or the clearest perspective on which to strengthen your ED&I strategy.
To explore disability, intersectionality and privilege further, think about this summer’s upcoming Paralympic Games. If you’ve ever watched this incredible event, you’ll have noticed people with a wide range of physical and learning disabilities, of different faiths and races coming together to compete.
This isn’t just a reminder for the eyes that disability cannot be pigeon-holed into a neat description, but also that – while within the rules of the Games they are competing on equal footing – in reality the differing privileges experienced by each athlete will have given some a distinct advantage before they even started competing.
For example, GB athletes who have been brought up in an affluent country with rights for disabled people enshrined in law and a healthcare system able to support their needs, will have an advantage over those from poorer countries where help for disabled people, let alone world-class sportsmen and women, is not high on the agenda.
Scaled down to individual disabled employees in your business, it can become easy to see how subtle advantages, such as economic privilege, can make a big difference to how someone perceives the world, how hard they have had to work to be where they are today and the ongoing support they need.
Here’s how you can cut through the intersectionality and make sure you have an ED&I strategy fit for everyone.
Examine your biases – This can be uncomfortable internal work but vital for being able to move forward with a fresh perspective. What comes to mind when you think of people with disabilities and how they fit within your teams or customer base? Are you doing enough to help people feel included? Are you guilty of ableism? These questions will help identify the gaps in your understanding.
Educate yourself – Fill those gaps in your knowledge with research! What do we mean by disability? What disabilities are there? How do the needs of people with different physical or learning disabilities vary? Answering these questions will pave the way towards making a more inclusive workplace and one that takes the individual needs of disabled people into account.
Lend an ear – There are a variety of proactive ways in which you can gain invaluable insight from your teams. But be mindful that encouraging people to share their experiences should never be forced. Disabled people shouldn’t have to take up the burden of advocating for rights that others enjoy freely and remember, one person’s story does not equal the experience of a whole community.
Create a support group – These forums, with representatives from all levels of seniority, can be a helpful way for disabled people to gain extra peer support at work and ensure their voices are fairly represented.
Update your ED&I training – Adding issues specifically centred on disability to your training will help create a supportive and respectful environment from the start and encourage people to report incidents of discrimination that they experience or witness.
From recruitment, selection and the interview process through to professional development, reward and retention schemes, as well as company-wide training, Tell Jane can support your workplace in developing and implementing effective strategies to ensure your workplace is inclusive for disabled employees. Contact me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.