Ableism and Abelist Microaggressions


July 21, 2021  |  John Wiese


June is Disability Pride Month, per New York Mayor Bill Deblasio’s 2015 declaration. For employers, celebrating Disability Pride Month is about empowering people with disabilities, uplifting their voices, and educating non-disabled people about what it means to live with a disability. Ableism is one form of prejudice or marginalization that is often left unaddressed in conversations about identity politics. Disabled people are regularly left on the sidelines of social movements, and in the workplace. This Disability Pride Month, let your company take another step in the right direction by bringing ableism and common examples of ableist microaggressions to light.

What is ableism?

Ableism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism–whether systematic, cultural, or interpersonal–against people with physical or mental disabilities. Ableism can come in the form of company policies, biased or discriminatory language, or physical lack of access to the same resources or spaces that people without disabilities have access to. Ableist structures reinforce the perception thatpeople without disabilities (abled people) are superior to those with disabilities. An ableist society hinges on the assumption that those with disabilities cannot achieve the same goals, have the same opportunities, or enjoy the same privileges as their abled counterparts.

In the United States, 26% of adults are living with a disability; that is over 61 million people. Many people don’t have clearly visible disabilities, and they are just as susceptible to ableism as those with physical impairments that are easy to spot. Upwards of 85% of disabilities are not visible to most people, this included mental disabilities or learning disabilities, sensory impairment, or even hidden health issues. Knowing about someone’s disability may help employees adjust their behaviors to account for this or enable employers to make special accommodations for that employee. Though, knowing that many disabilities fly under the radar, employees should err on the side of all inclusion.

Examples of Ableism at Work

On average, disabled people make are $1,000 less each month than their non-disabled counterparts; this may account for the fact that the unemployment rate amongst disabled people fluctuates around 70%, this number has only inflated following the COVID-19 pandemic. Though, ableism at work runs deeper than numbers. It is often ingrained in the workplace culture in the form of physical spaces, ableist language and microaggressions, and workplace policies.

Ableism in Recruitment and Hiring

Oftentimes, ableism pops up in subtle ways in job descriptions. There are the obvious examples, such as “Candidates must be able to lift up to 30 pounds” or “Must be able to hear a telephone ring in a bustling environment.” These requirements are skewed toward strong, able-bodied candidates, and candidates without hearing loss or impairment. More subtle examples of ableist job descriptions include “Must be able to sit for long periods of time,” which does not account for people with back injuries who need to stand up and move around at regular intervals. Or “Thrives in a bright, bustling, and energetic environment.” This would deter light sensitive people prone to migraines, or even those with hearing loss.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that reasonable accommodations be provided to people with any of these disabilities. Consider explaining why duties that may deter disabled people are essential functions of the job, and acknowledging that reasonable accommodation can be made for otherwise qualified individuals. This will enable the company to review potential biases in hiring practices, and help find the most appropriate qualified individuals for the role, regardless of disability.

Physically Ableist Spaces

Ableism commonly occurs in workspace designs, office floor plans, or even entries and exits. When examining an office space for ableist weak points, start at the entrance. Make sure that for every set of stairs, there is a corresponding ramp or elevator. Are essential office supplies, light switches, and appliances all accessible to people in wheelchairs or who are shorter than 4ft 10in? Are there an adequate number of handicapped parking spaces outside? Is the layout of the breakroom easy to navigate for someone in a wheelchair? If some aspects of the workplace are not handicap accessible, consider allowing disabled people to work from home, as a reasonable accommodation until alterations can be made to the space.

Ableist Microaggressions

The most common form of ableism in the workplace, ableist microaggressions often come in the form of language, and are usually unintentional or even well-intentioned. Microaggressions are subtle but offensive comments or actions that are unintentional and reinforce a prior mental image. They are typically directed at marginalized groups and oftentimes go uncorrected, allowing them to occur regularly.

    • Common examples of ableist language includes:
    • Calling something “lame” or “retarded”
    • Referring to someone as “psycho” or “a total spaz”
    • Jokes about someone being “bipolar” or “a psychopath”
    • Saying someone is “crippled by” something instead of “limited”
    • Lamenting that an idea “fell on deaf ears” or that someone “turned a blind eye”
    • “I have to keep my desk clean, I’m so OCD!”

Remember that language provides currency to prejudice, and using language that further marginalizes people with disabilities only deepens the divide they might be feeling. To perpetuate these terms is to conform to the status quo which allows able bodied people to not have to think about the issues and biases that disabled individuals deal with every day.

Though, microaggressions go beyond slang terms. Some behavioral microaggressions include:

    • Crouching down with your hands on your knees to talk to someone in a wheelchair or a little person
    • Pretending that a disability doesn’t exist, instead of asking someone to share their experience
    • Making assumptions that you know what someone’s limitations might be, because you have seen that disability before
    • Telling someone “You’re so brave” just for existing in the same space as you
    • Being paternalistic because you believe that someone needs your assistance

People with disabilities just want to be treated like everyone else. If they want to share their story, they will. If they need help with something, assume they will ask for it. In many cases, the best form of allyship is to just treat a disabled person like you would like to be treated, and make accommodations that are not intrusive or presumptive.

Ableism is not limited to these examples, it can range from blatant discrimination, to subtle behaviors and slang terms. The best way to combat ableism in the workplace is to operationalize inclusive hiring practices, educate your employees on biases and microaggressions, and ensure that physical office spaces are handicap accessible. For more tips on building an ADA compliance and disability inclusive workplace, demo our ADA Training Course for managers.


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John Wiese
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