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Recognising and combating ableism at work

What is ableism?

We see it in showbiz with non-disabled actors playing disabled roles. We see it in activism with Greta Thunberg sounding off against politicians who use her diagnosis of autism to invalidate her efforts to tackle climate change. We see it in employment figures with disabled women being “more than twice as likely to be unemployed than are their non-disabled counterparts“.

Ableism is so culturally ingrained that it may feel like we’re fighting a losing battle – but fight we must.

In a nutshell, ableism is discrimination against those who are perceived as disabled. It’s an umbrella term that encompasses all forms of discrimination against a person with physical, mental or neurological distinctions. It manifests in many ways – whether it’s a lack of wheelchair accessibility at your local coffee shop, or failure for an employer to make reasonable adjustments to your work environment.

Your rights in the workplace

It is against the law for employers to discriminate against you because of a disability. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a legal responsibility to make “reasonable adjustments” in an effort to avoid putting you at a disadvantage compared to your non-disabled colleagues. It is not favourable treatment.

It is illegal for an employer to deny you a promotion or training opportunities because of your disability, or to dismiss you or make you redundant because of the same. From your first interaction, they have a responsibility to offer support if you feel that you need it.

Asking for adjustments at a job interview

It might be a legal requirement to make reasonable adjustments, but that doesn’t mean your interviewer will know what you need right off the bat. You’re the expert on what you need.

If you’ve been invited to an interview, ask questions to help you assess what adjustments you’ll need. What will they expect you to do on the day? How will you be tested? How long do they expect the interview to last and how many people will be in the room?

If you have a physical disability, you may need to ask about wheelchair accessibility, whether there’s a handwritten element to the tests or if you could use a computer or tablet.

You do not have to disclose your condition when you apply for a job, but if you feel that you need reasonable adjustments, you will need to tell the interviewer that you have a disability. If you are denied the adjustments, this could be discrimination and you may wish to contact the Acas Helpline.

Reasonable adjustments at work

Whether it’s your first day or your 10th anniversary, it’s important to communicate freely with your manager – this will help ensure your employer understands your needs and how they can best meet them. Depending on your disability, you may find that you need to ask for certain reasonable adjustments.

These could be physical changes to your work environment – adapted equipment, an adjustable desk, changes to the lighting or installing a wheelchair ramp or lift on the premises. You may find you need to ask for flexible working hours or the ability to work from home. Perhaps you need an interpreter or personal assistant to help you achieve your daily goals. If it’s something you need to access work comfortably, it’s within your rights to ask for it.

Financial support for disabled people

As a disabled person, you may be eligible for financial support through government schemes, grants and benefits.

The government provides an Access to Work scheme. This grant can help pay for special equipment, adaptations or a support worker to help you travel to and from work and support you in the workplace.

The Motability Scheme allows you to use your PIP Mobility, DLA, WPMS or AFIP benefit to lease a vehicle for a set period of time. It can also assist toward the advance payment (or deposit) on a mobility vehicle if you are eligible to receive a charitable grant through the scheme.

Challenging ableist language and behaviours at work

Employers have a legal responsibility, but colleagues aren’t exempt from the Equality Act 2010 either. Treating someone unfairly because of their disability is not only against the law, it can be detrimental to that person’s self-esteem and mental health. Unfortunately, this is all too common in the workplace.

It goes without saying that excluding, bullying or harassing disabled colleagues is intolerable – but there are other behaviours that can be harmful even if you have the best intentions.

As a non-disabled person:

Don’t make assumptions that you know what a disabled person needs. Offer assistance but do not force it on them. Ask questions to make yourself better informed of their needs, but do not interrogate them just to satisfy your curiosity.

Do include them in discussions. Treat them with dignity and recognise them as a valued member of the team, just as you would with any other colleague.

Don’t accuse them of getting preferential treatment. The reasonable adjustments they receive are not bonuses but a way to accommodate diverse needs in a way that allows equal access for all.

Do make the effort to educate yourself. If you feel you would benefit from some training – whether it’s something specific, such as British Sign Language, or more generalised, such as a disability awareness course for managers – then approach your employer to discuss whether this can be arranged.

As a disabled person:

It may feel like you have to repeat yourself, but you are the best expert there is on what you need and what you definitely don’t need.

You may find that people want to share miracle cures, top tips and health articles they found on the web – this kind of behaviour is common and can be very frustrating. Keep your cool, explain that this sort of advice isn’t helpful despite their best intentions and, if they continue, approach your employer or HR.

People will want to ask you questions so that they better understand how they can help. Be as open and honest as is required, but don’t feel that you need to discuss sensitive topics if it makes you uncomfortable. If the questions persist despite your attempts to steer the conversation away, approach your employer or HR.

Bullying in the workplace

If you see an individual being harassed or isolated based on their disability, report it to your employer or to a safeguarding representative. Reach out to that person to offer your support. Challenge the bully on their conduct and show others that discrimination should not be tolerated.

How to report ableism

If you have experienced ableism in the workplace and you want free, impartial advice regarding your next steps, you may wish to contact Acas. This organisation provides conciliation to resolve workplace problems.

Alternatively, you can seek legal help from a union – if you are a member – or from a solicitor, law centre or other service. You can find out more on the Scope website.

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