Confronting ableism in the workplace: What it is and how to combat it

Feb 3, 2022
min read

Did you know “disability” continues to be the most frequently cited ground of discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code (Code) in human rights claims made to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO)? Especially in remote environments, widespread misconceptions and assumptions about disability can cause ableist language and behaviour to proliferate. 

But what is ableism? How does it play out in the workplace? And what can you do to ensure you are contributing to a safe workplace culture of acceptance and belonging? In this blog, we’re answering those questions, so you can be a better ally and co-worker to people with disabilities.

What is ableism? 

Ableism is the discrimination and social prejudice of anyone living with mental or physical disabilities. Under this premise, the person is reduced to their disability and assumed as inferior to the able-bodied. Ableism can take the form of ideas and assumptions, attitudes and practices, laws and regulations, and physical environment barriers. 

What does “disability” mean?

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, disability is defined as any degree of physical or mental impairment that may limit a person’s ability to function with the world around them. It’s important to note that disability may have been present at birth, caused by an accident, or developed over time. 

Visible vs invisible disabilities

It’s a huge misconception that disabilities are easy to spot. According to a 2017 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, among white-collar, college-educated employees, 30% have a disability – and of all employees with a disability, 62% have an invisible disability. 

But what is an invisible disability? “Invisible disability” or “hidden disability” is an umbrella term for disabilities that are not immediately apparent. That means they are not always obvious to the onlooker, but can sometimes or always limit daily activities and present challenges depending on circumstances. 

According to Invisible Disability Project, “an invisible disability can include, but is not limited to: cognitive impairment and brain injury; the autism spectrum; chronic illnesses like multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, and fibromyalgia; d/Deaf and/or hard of hearing; blindness and/or low vision; anxiety, depression, PTSD, and many more.”

Am I being ableist? 

It’s a good thing that you’re reflecting and asking yourself this question! Ableism perpetuates a negative view of and reaction to disability. And while most understand that ableism is a form of discrimination, they may not be able to spot their own discriminatory and damaging language or actions in the workplace. 

To help you identify ableist behavior and what not to do, we’ve put together some examples and how they could play out in workplace scenarios. 

Examples of ableist behaviour in the workplace 

Ableist language

It can be hard for some to recognize damaging behaviour, especially when ableist language is   so normalized. Words like “blind”, “deaf”, “insane”, and “psycho” – which have become a part of every-day language and are prevalent terms used in popular culture – are just some examples of how you are contributing to oppressive dialogue. 


Jenna is a full-time student who spends two evenings a week working part-time at a fast food restaurant. Nearing the end of a long eight-hour weekend shift, she lets off steam by talking to her co-worker around the same age, Gianna, about the “psycho” customers she endured that afternoon. Jenna recounts events and jokes, saying, “they must’ve been on drugs or something”. Gianna laughs along but leaves the conversation feeling isolated. As someone who has felt the effects of addiction within her own family, the words Jenna used to describe the customers hurt Gianna. While she understands Jenna’s comment was a joke, she can’t help but think she would be judged if Jenna knew about her situation. “Would she look at me differently?” Gianna thinks to herself. “If I had a bad day or acted out, would she think I’m on drugs?” Even though it wasn’t intentional, because of Jenna’s comment, she’s eliminated the possibility of a safe space for Gianna to share her experiences. 

Believing you know it all

Maybe you read an article or watched a documentary about persons living with a certain disability shared by your co-worker and now feel more educated on the topic than you were before – that's great! While you may come out of that situation more informed, it doesn’t make you an expert, nor do you know how your co-worker’s disability personally affects them. 


After learning about her co-worker Manraj's Crohn's Disease, Aynsley reads a few general articles about its effects. In their next 1:1 chat, Aynsley is intrigued to learn more. She asks Manraj, “Mild cramping isn’t hard to deal with, right? I know it’s a constant thing but it’s not, like, unbearable, right? Can’t you just get surgery?” Manraj is taken aback by the comments and feels Aynsley is being invasive. His Crohn’s Disease has been quite severe, and since he hasn’t found a treatment plan to stabilize his illness, Manraj has been dealing with moderate to severe pain for the last year. Instead of having an open conversation like Aynsley had hoped, Manraj is overwhelmed by Aynsley’s comments, as he feels she is questioning his Crohn’s Disease’s severity and how it personally affects him. He feels as though Aynsley is judging him and doesn’t feel comfortable or safe talking about it anymore. 

Making assumptions

Unfortunately, people often judge others by what they see and conclude a person can or cannot do something based on the way they look. 

It’s impossible to tell what someone else is going through from an outside perspective, unless they feel comfortable enough to tell you themselves. That’s why subtle comments like, “why do you always look so tired” or attempting to “help” unprompted can be upsetting. 


Aimee is working at a distribution center for the summer in between college semesters. She typically keeps to herself when completing her tasks but has lunch with a co-worker around her age, Sarah, everyday. They talk about lives, summer plans, and school, and one afternoon, Aimee feels comfortable sharing that she’d recently been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. To her surprise, Sarah pauses for a second, visibly confused, and says, “But you don't look autistic. You seem normal.” Aimee is upset by Sarah’s comment and wonders if something is wrong with her because of her diagnosis. She wishes she hadn’t said anything and worries Sarah’s perception of her has changed. 

Being invasive 

No matter how curious you are or eager to “help”, it isn’t appropriate to ask your co-worker about their disability. Not only can it be distracting in the workplace – it can be triggering and isolating to the person you are asking. 


Adil, a marketer in Downtown Toronto, uses a wheelchair to get around. His new workplace operates as remote-first and today he’s decided to make his first trip to the office. When he’s heading into the elevator, he’s greeted by a co-worker he’s virtually met a few times, David, who insists on pressing the elevator buttons for him. Annoyed but not completely bothered, he asks him how it’s going and the two have a conversation. But when the elevator door opens to their floor, David grabs the handles of Adil’s wheelchair and starts wheeling him out unprompted. When Adil tells David to stop and that he didn’t ask for his help, David rolls his eyes and says he was “just trying to be nice”. Adil is perfectly capable of moving on his own and finds David’s actions to be completely disrespectful and hurtful. If he needed help, he’d ask. More than anything though, Adil has lost a sense of safety and belonging in his workplace and wonders if his other colleagues view him in the same way. 

Prioritizing inclusivity and belonging

Inclusion is not just a set of organizational policies to make sure all employees feel safe and heard – it’s also about doing the work to reverse your own misconceptions and biases. We understand that it can be challenging, we’re still learning too! We want to help you prioritize inclusivity and belonging, so here are a handful of ways you can create inclusive spaces:

Mind your language 

Simple as that. We get it, it can be hard to unlearn behaviours, especially when certain words are so embedded in your vocabulary. But assessing phrases and words that usually go unchallenged is pivotal in ensuring everyone feels safe and comfortable at work. 

Inclusive language means using language that is free from stereotyped, prejudiced, or discriminatory words, phrases and tones. Buffer has an excellent resource specific to startups and tech. 

Don’t assume 

Don’t attempt to “help” unless asked, and don’t assume you know or understand how that person is feeling at any given moment. Regardless of intent, this is inappropriate and invasive. 

Don’t compare 

Generally speaking, disabilities are long-term and have serious effects on a person’s physical and psychological health. You may have experienced a temporary injury or illness you feel is worth bonding over. In reality, the two are not comparable, and it’s possible an interaction like this can discourage a person with a disability from confiding in you or other coworkers moving forward.

Remember: One size doesn’t fit all

There is an entire spectrum of disabilities. While you may feel or be well-versed in a certain area, or know someone personally who shares the same or similar disability as your co-worker, this doesn’t give you permission to make assumptions about how it affects them. Make a continuous effort to learn, and simply listen when a person confides in you about their experience.

Prioritize inclusivity

Understanding the need for accessibility is important, but so is thinking beyond policy and logistics. Ensuring all people feel they belong and are heard is pivotal in eliminating ableism in your workplace. 

We want to help you continue building the most comfortable and inclusive space for your people to do great work. That’s why we continue to create resources to help you do it. Dive into more equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) content right here:

Culture experts are sweeping the market right now. What does that mean and should you prioritize this people superstar for your own HR team? Read why we hired a People & Culture Specialist (and why you should too) to learn

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