In our Voices post this month, we want to tackle the issue of ableism. We’re certainly not experts on the subject, and can only hope to scratch the surface of it here. Regardless, it is a topic that deserves to be discussed more openly and honestly, even if it is just from our own limited perspective.
What is ableism?
According to the 2010 US census, nearly 60 million people, or roughly 1 in 5 Americans, experience disability of some kind. Often, these disabilities are physical in nature, such as blindness, deafness, the need for prosthetic limbs, a walker or a wheelchair. Other people’s disabilities may be less visible or not apparent at all, such as conditions like anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries and intellectual disabilities.
Despite such a large percentage of the population encountering disabilities in their daily lives, discrimination remains commonplace. This is what is often referred to as “ableism.”
Right off the bat, it’s slightly embarrassing to admit that we had the meaning of ‘ableism’ completely backwards. When we first started looking at issues around accessibility, we thought that ‘ableism’ was a positive term, like ‘feminism’ or ‘diversity.’ It wasn’t until we looked deeper at its actual meaning that we realized we weren’t using the word “ableism” correctly. Rather than being a term of support for people of all abilities, ableism refers to the discrimination and social prejudice faced by people who have (or are perceived to have) disabilities.
The consequence of ableism can take many forms. In a typical workplace environment, for example, ableism results in fewer accommodations being made for people with different physical needs. This can range from building designs that don’t include ramps, to a lack of wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, kitchens and parking facilities. While ADA requirements have forced architects and designers to rethink physical accessibility in newer buildings, older buildings remain stubbornly inaccessible to a lot of people.
Ableism can also be less visible, but just as damaging. For example, some companies may have HR policies that don’t take people’s disabilities into consideration. This can result in penalizing employees who may need extended time off due to mental health conditions or those needing medical treatment. Even in the recruiting and hiring process, ableist biases can lead to an undervaluing of people’s potential, based on inaccurate assumptions that a particular disability makes a candidate less qualified or inferior.
Jenifer Wallis, a corporate sales representative at NetMotion, has some first-hand experience with disabilities and how they can impact people’s lives.
“My daughter was diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis) halfway through her junior year in high school. She had always been an avid athlete, participating in volleyball, track, and cross country. During one of her cross country meets, she passed out and had a seizure, totally out of the blue. It took almost six months of diagnostic tests – and a couple of misdiagnoses – to finally figure out that she had MS. Having that information was half the battle, and fortunately, with the right medication she is now able to control her symptoms.
“What was so frustrating for her, though, was being excluded from the sports she loved because of ambiguous high school guidelines. She was not allowed to play because the school saw her cooling vest as a legal liability. It was like trying to put a square peg in a round hole because the school did not have the flexibility to accommodate anything that didn’t fit neatly into their pre-conceived notion of what a student could and could not do.”Jenifer Walis, Corporate Sales Representative, NetMotion
Standing up against ableism
A recent article that captured many people’s attention really stood out as a prime example. In this case, a young girl living in Utah named Morgyn Arnold was excluded from her middle school yearbook’s cheerleading team photo. Why? Because she has Down Syndrome. Several photos of the team had been taken during the photoshoot, and the school chose one to represent the team that did not include Morgyn.
While this one incident may be excused as a genuine mistake, it is not a one-off occurrence.
Excluding people with disabilities or treating them as ‘less than’ in this way not only harms them as individuals, but it also teaches the rest of us that it’s okay and maybe even preferable to exclude or discriminate against people who don’t fit our concept of what is acceptable and normal.
These are exactly the kinds of actions – intentional or otherwise – that we should be more willing to recognize and actively address. Creating a more tolerant and inclusive workplace takes action.
Becoming an ally
As an organization, we are constantly being called higher to recognize and deal with our biases, including those associated with ableism. It’s something that we should certainly be doing from an HR perspective in all of our processes and policies, but it’s also something that we should expect from all of our employees. Being an ally requires disabilities to become less of a taboo topic.
Using Jenifer’s example again, one of the first steps is to become more comfortable about discussing disabilities. In the case of her daughter, Jenifer recommends that if people have questions, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask.
“My daughter doesn’t mind telling people about her condition,” Jenifer says. “It really helps remove any stigma or misunderstanding about what she can and cannot do. For that reason, I really see the benefit of just asking someone about their disability – rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. Disabilities are a normal part of many people’s lives, so we need to create a safe space in which talking about and accepting these conditions is also perfectly normal.”
Michael Snyder, one of NetMotion’s software development engineers in test (SDET), has another perspective on how to be an ally.
“My wife works with people with developmental disabilities and their families. Seeing her work and knowing how important it is, advocating for a level playing field for everyone is something that’s always top of mind for me,” he said.
When Michael was younger, he had a friend with cerebral palsy. At the time, technology was quite limited, but the boy had a wheelchair that he could control using a joystick. He also had a computer with a red button connected to some software. As he hit the button a cursor would slowly move across the onscreen keyboard, highlighting a single letter at a time. Communicating this way was painfully slow, but he could type and interact with the computer using even that kind of rudimentary interface.
“Flash forward a few years and I was working at Microsoft, testing accessibility features of software and making sure that 3rd party applications were compatible with screen readers, high-contrast mode, the magnifier and other assistive technologies.”
“Accessibility has become such an important aspect of engineering for me. Being an ally means being willing to make sure that your software and hardware design not only meet compliance requirements, but that you constantly ask how it can be even better for all users.”Michael Snyder, SDET III, NetMotion
“Even with NetMotion’s own software, we are always testing and trying to make improvements that enhance accessibility for as many people as possible. For example, using something as common as a mouse may not be possible for people with tremors, so one of the tests I conduct is to ensure that our software can be used without one.”
Indeed, being an ally against ableism is a battle that needs to be fought on many fronts, from changing misconceptions to recognizing and breaking our own biases. We will certainly make mistakes along the way, but if we become a more inclusive organization, then the end result will surely be well worth the effort.
July is Disability Pride Month, celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law on July 26th, 1990. And if you want to hear more from people with disabilities, check out the Disability Visibility Project here.