According to the disability charity Scope, there are around 14.1 million people living with disability in the UK. This amounts to around 19% of working-age adults, and 46% of pension-age adults. Disabilities come in various forms, and can have a whole range of knock-on effects. In some cases, the exact shape of the disability might be difficult for other people to spot. As well as the direct consequences of their disability, there’s the problem of discrimination that disabled people suffer.
What is Ableism?
Ableism is discrimination and prejudice against people who are differently abled. This needn’t always imply that there’s conscious malice on the part of the person perpetuating the problem. It’s easy to spot when disabled people are being verbally, or even physically, abused. But this usually represents an extreme of ableism that, while traumatic and very serious, isn’t as common or insidious as the other varieties.
Unconscious ableism is also something to be aware of. Since we aren’t consciously aware of it, it’s more difficult to correct. So, an unconscious discrimination might manifest in a recruitment situation, where a wheelchair-bound candidate is less likely to be considered for a given role, even if their being in a wheelchair would have zero practical impact on their ability to perform the job in question. This kind of discrimination make even be illegal under the Equality Act 2010.
In some cases, ableism can be systemic. This means that no actual bias or discrimination need be perpetuated by any individual. In other words, you can have an organisation made up of saints, but if it’s set up incorrectly, then the procedures and practices can work in ways that disadvantage disabled people. To make the problem worse, members of an organisation might look to deny the problems, out of concern over being labelled ableist themselves.
Thus, if we’re going to really battle against this form of discrimination, we must actively seek out ways in which disabled people aren’t being accepted. This might mean asking disabled people directly, or getting an auditor in to assess the situation.
In almost every case, catering to disabled people will pose a cost. Installing a wheelchair ramp, and elevator, or braille signs in the toilets – these things are not free. But these are more than outweighed by the rewards of an accepting culture, and the contribution of a wider pool of people, each with different perspectives and abilities. For example, the investment in specially modified vehicles for disabled people is often a sound one.
Watch your mouth
We all know that we aren’t supposed to use certain words to refer to disabled people. Cripple, spastic and the like are undeniable slurs. What’s more contentious is figurative use of certain words, some of which aren’t inherently offensive.
Some disabled people might object to us saying that the economy has been ‘crippled’ by coronavirus, or that turning a ‘blind-eye’ on something, or that the boss has gone ‘mental’. Some other disabled people might counter that this sort of thing is incredibly patronising and creates an unhelpful level of awkwardness. Research from Scope in 2014 revealed that an incredible two thirds of Brits felt uncomfortable even talking to disabled people, and that it’s more prevalent among millennials than anyone else. Forcing everyone to walk on eggshells would seem an excellent way to worsen this situation.
Do disabled people want an environment where every innocuous turn of phrase is a potential act of abuse? It’s probably difficult for an employer to know for sure – especially if they aren’t themselves disabled. When formulating a policy on what’s acceptable and what’s not, it’s probably a good idea to involve the disabled people involved in a given organisation.