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How HR can help remove unconscious bias towards disabled employees

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Organisations, businesses and leaders need to recognise unconscious biases towards disabled employees if they are ever to empower them to fulfil their potential.

10th Aug 2022
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It is reported that in Q2 of 2021, there were 4.4 million disabled people in employment in the UK, an increase of 300,000 compared to Q2 in 2019 and up by 1.5 million since Q2 of 2013. 

Until the pandemic hit, we saw continued growth in the number of disabled people in the workplace, and since COVID-19, there has been a drop in the number of disabled people in employment and a widening of the employment gap. We are still operating in an environment that views disability as something atypical, and there remains an abundance of bias against persons with disabilities in the workplace.

Abelism in the workplace

Discrimination against disabled people is known professionally as 'ableism'. It refers to negative attitudes based on prejudices or stereotypes that can prevent disabled people from accessing equal opportunities.  Examples of negative attitudes include assuming that disabled people can’t do the following:

  • Work
  • Live independently
  • Have sex
  • Have children

Despite UK law protecting disabled people and ensuring employers do not discriminate against people with disabilities, the workplace remains an environment of discrimination for many in the community. It is worth noting not all disabled people will experience discrimination due to other privileged identities, as we are all multifaceted people.

Biases maintain inequalities for disabled people and must be consistently dismantled and prevented

Many assumptions are made about disabilities, which are often incorrect. This is exacerbated by a lack of education regarding disability in society overall and people feeling uncomfortable talking about disabilities. With 80% of disabilities acquired it is very likely working people will become disabled people, and also the majority of disabilities are non-visible, so your employees already hold the identity of disabled even if they don’t acknowledge it (yet).

Organisations, businesses and leaders need to recognise unconscious biases towards disabled employees and understand how they can reduce these and empower disabled workers. When people are denied opportunities for paid employment, they can struggle to get out of the poverty trap and therefore miss other opportunities in areas including housing, healthcare, education and participation in social life. Disabled people are disabled by social attitudes and physical environments much more than their health condition, and this is known as the Social Model of Disability.

Biases maintain inequalities for disabled people and must be consistently dismantled and prevented.

What constitutes unconscious bias towards disabled individuals?

  • Designing a building or website without accessibility in mind
  • Making fun of people with disabilities
  • Not making reasonable adjustments (accommodations) so disabled people can access spaces or information 
  • Assuming that people with disabilities want or need to be ‘fixed’

Another element of unconscious biases is the acknowledgement and eradication of microaggressions: subtle, but offensive comments or actions directed at persons based on their belonging to a marginalised group which is often unintentional, or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype.

Here are some common phrases that are microaggressions: 

  • ‘Do you have a license to drive that thing?’
  • ‘You don’t look disabled’
  • ‘I guess my life isn’t that bad after all’
  • ‘Are you sure you can handle this job?’
  • ‘Oh, you got a degree/job? Good for you!’
  • “It’s amazing what they can do, isn’t it?”
  • ‘Do you need any help? Really? What about now?’ 
  • “But you look so normal” 
  • “I don’t see your disability” 
  • “Why work if you can get benefits?”

Attributes of disabled people are often valued as inclusive leadership attributes; collaboration, problem-solving, enabling others, self-awareness, empathy, and managing the unknown

There are many myths relating to disabled employees, and it is well documented their sick records are often better than non-disabled team members. For many people, disability does not imply constant ill-health, all humans experience illness and sick days.  

Attributes of disabled people are often valued as inclusive leadership attributes; collaboration, problem-solving, enabling others, self-awareness, empathy, and managing the unknown. We have been doing these things every day to live our best lives, and we are hardwired to plan and adapt.

How can HR help reduce these unconscious biases?

There are ways to remove the barriers faced by people with disabilities and open up innovative opportunities. Similar behaviours that improve diversity in a business can enable managers to support individuals with disabilities. 

This includes ensuring that everyone on a team is heard and given actionable feedback, empowering team members to make decisions, and creating a safe space to share and propose ideas. Teaching managers to display inclusive leadership behaviours is just the first step. Companies must also create a culture of support and inclusion by implementing the following at the organisational level:

  • Provide training – companies should put training programmes in place to help individuals with disabilities, as well as their managers and peers.
  • Offer leadership development opportunities to employees with disabilities - unconscious bias can cause managers to overlook people with disabilities for leadership programmes. To combat this, managers can create development options specifically targeted toward these individuals. 
  • Provide visible role models - a prominent executive with a disability makes it easier for others with disabilities to see themselves in leadership positions at their companies. 
  • Create allies in the organisation - encourage employees to speak up and show their support for colleagues. Call out unwanted behaviour in a constructive way to promote a change in perspective, without shaming. 

Employers should seek to design solutions and make decisions that take everybody into account through intersectionality. Have a person-centred approach and be open to everyone in the organisation. Ensure each person, disabled and non-disabled, has the time and resources they need to do their best work and to achieve equivalent outcomes to their peers.

Concealed bias is where you know you have bias, but you hide it, and don’t express it, while unconscious bias, as we know it, is in all of us and a natural part of being human

Concealed and unconscious bias – the difference

Concealed bias is where you know you have bias, but you hide it, and don’t express it, while unconscious bias, as we know it, is in all of us and a natural part of being human. As it’s unconscious, we’re more likely to show it unless we become self-aware and reflect on these biases. The outcome remains the same: biases maintain inequalities for disabled people. We must normalise disability in the workplace through continuous education, discussions, visible role modelling, allyship and inclusive leadership. 

By reducing the unconscious biases towards disabled employees, we can achieve this. Organisations must hire, retain and promote disabled people into leadership.
For more information on how your organisation can reduce unconscious biases against the disabled community please visit EW Group.

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