What is ableism?

Ableism is discrimination in favour of non-disabled people. It is based on an inherent belief that to be able-bodied or able-minded is the ‘norm’ and therefore the ‘preferred’ and the ‘superior’ state of being. As a result, disabled people are deemed ‘other’ or ‘less than’ by comparison and assumed as needing ‘fixing’.

Why is ableism left out of the D&I conversation?

Ableism is not a new term. However, it is only very recently that it has been appearing more frequently within conversations relating to equality, diversity and inclusion.

It is also often interchangeable with ‘disablism’ – discrimination against disabled people. While both terms can be used to convey disability discrimination, there are subtle nuances in their emphasis – notably, the subject of the “ism”. Disablism appears as more active and overt discrimination against disabled people, while ableism is more covert, discrimination that benefits non-disabled people by favouring the able.

And here lies the uncomfortable truth; to be able-bodied and able-minded is a privilege. We live in an ableist world. Our very surroundings – not just our institutions – have been constructed to benefit the able at a disadvantage to the disabled. As such, the conversation is avoided. But, as I’ve said many times before, it’s time to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

How does ableism appear in the workplace?

It’s time to shine a light on ableism. Ableism is underpinned by negative stereotypes, misconceptions and generalisations about disabled people, leading to segregation, exclusion, ostracization and silencing – in an ableist world, disabled people are simply not seen or heard.

However, by understanding and identifying how ableism appears in the workplace and our day-to-day lives, we can bring about change. Here are some key examples:

  • Refusing to provide or not offering to provide reasonable adjustments
  • Failure or refusal to employ, promote or retain disabled people
  • Refusing flexible or remote working requests
  • Not providing regular or sufficient breaks or quiet/separate work spaces
  • Overlooking accessibility requirements in the design of office spaces or event spaces – this doesn’t just mean lifts and accessible toilets, but including braille on signage or equipment (the printer, the coffee machine, the canteen menu) and ensuring social activities are inclusive for all
  • Overlooking accessibility requirements of digital assets – online training or eLearning courses (audio descriptions/captioning), websites and employee intranet, company literature
  • Assuming someone needs to have a physical disability to be classed as disabled (“but you don’t look disabled”)
  • Challenging a disabled person when they disclose their disability (questioning if they are “actually disabled”)
  • Asking invasive or inappropriate questions about a disabled person’s medical history or personal life, or the origins of the disability (“were you born this way?”)
  • Making jokes, derogatory comments, mocking disability or using disability as an insult (“She’s such a psycho”, “That’s retarded”)
  • Belief that someone can be “cured” of their disability or that the disability is a form of “punishment”
  • Speaking at people rather than to people, speaking in a condescending tone, infantilising, telling someone they are “an inspiration” or “brave”
  • Assuming what people can and cannot do, and making decisions on these beliefs without consulting the person – for example, not inviting them to a social event because “they won’t feel up to it”

How do we overcome ableism?

The key to overcoming ableism is to learn by listening to the experiences of disabled people. No one disability is the same and it is not just visible. Therefore, disabled employees need to be involved in every decision relating to creating an inclusive and accessible workplace.

Disabled people need to be at the centre of the conversation and to have a voice. When someone discloses a disability, it is vital to ask, listen and respond to what they need rather than assume, or act or speak on their behalf.

We can all be disability allies; it starts by simply taking the time to listen and learn.


If you want to learn more about ableism and prevent disability discrimination in your workplace, our team of experienced D&I practitioners are on-hand to offer in-house training as well as consultancy and policy review. Get in touch with me directly by emailing hello@telljane.co.uk to find out more.

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