Is your workplace accidentally ableist?

Tips for mental health

man working on wheelchair illustration

In recognition of International Persons with Disability Day on December 3rd, Mental Health First Aid® Australia invites you to consider the impact of ableism on your workforce.

According to the People with disability in Australia 2022 produced by The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), one in six Australians have some form of disability[1]. People with disabilities have insights, skills and qualities that strengthen a workplace’s performance in all kinds of fields.

However, workplaces can sometimes be an exclusionary and even hostile environment for people with disabilities. Termed ableism, this often-overlooked form of exclusion is incredibly pervasive within policy and physical structures encountered within the workplace. And AIHW found this contributes to people with disabilities experiencing double the unemployment rate (10%)[2] of their able-bodied counterparts (4.6%).

Don’t miss out on talent by excluding people with disabilities via policy and design. Let’s explore what it takes to create a disability-friendly and inclusive workplace.

Retaining your work from home policy

The ability to work from home can be a benefit for a wide variety of people with disabilities, enabling them to better manage pain, fatigue, and symptoms.

The Australian Human Rights Commission found that that 1.2 million Australians experience difficulties using public transport [3] which makes an incredibly strong case for working from home policies for people with disabilities.

Less travel to work means fewer barriers during the commute or navigating the workplace itself. It can also help limit exposure to workplace interactions that may over-stimulate, overwhelm and/or take applied concentration to navigate for anxious or non-neurotypical staff members.

Working from home can reduce sick days. The management of high pain and low energy days becomes simpler by lowering the performative aspects of work like wardrobe and small talk. It offers far more suitable rest places. Plus, the furniture and workplace setups at home are often more conducive to working with safety for longer periods.

Coupled with flexibility in the working hours, access to a working from home policy can allow for a person with disabilities more options to manage disability impacts appropriately.

Creating the conditions for disclosure

According to the Hidden Disabilities Organisation, 80% of disabilities are invisible The idea of ableism may make it difficult for those living  with a ‘hidden disability’ to disclose this deeply personal information. This in turn, may make it hard to provide the appropriate policies, access and support that the individual may need. 

However, the focus should not be on enforcement of disclosure but on creating a culture that promotes and supports safe disclosure.

This includes:

  • Proactively training on disability. Supplying disability sensitivity training and Mental Health First Aid® Training
  • Making use of sensitivity readers. This helps ensure contracts, policy documents, training assets and internal communication remain free from ableism and bias. Educating staff on person-first language, updated disability terms and the importance of respecting a person with disability’s choice with identity referencing
  • Accepting people who disclose disabilities at face value. While it may be tempting to request proof from doctors and psychologists, you may alienate the person in question and/or request information they legally do not need to supply
  • Choosing comfort over curiosity. Disability disclosure should not come at the expense of the person’s comfort level. This includes but is not limited to when and how the disclosure takes place. Appropriate training in the workplace can help discourage intrusive questions related to disability in general
  • Treating disability with respect in the workplace. Ableism can take many forms including jokes or memes, the use of words steeped in intellectual capacity insults and so on. Responding to and managing these moments effectively can promote a sense of inclusion and safety
  • Celebrating Disability Pride. Special days such as International Day of People with Disabilities, World Autism Awareness Day and World Mental Health Day, should be promoted and celebrated within workplaces.

Make inclusion part of your planning

Events and the design choices within workplaces can be a minefield when it comes to ableism. Most people don’t realise that a person in a wheelchair isn’t only looking for a ramp at the front of the building, they’re also wondering whether they can wheel safely from the bus stop to the venue and whether the toilet is accessible.

For people with disabilities, accessibility in real terms means not having to deal with auditory, sensory or information overload associated with open plan spaces. It may mean having access to a seat without asking for it or coworking spaces providing more than the currently popular choice of bar stools and cocktail tables or high benches in workspaces and communal areas.

It may mean feeling security and permeance in a space that isn’t in a hot-desking situation, or knowing they can make use of quieter, cleaner spaces to rejuvenate or for solid thinking or working.

It’s a mix of the physical space together with their vulnerability to judgement, exclusion and visibility attracting undesirable attention.

    Make your content and processes accessible

    Providing access to people with disabilities means lowering the barriers to reading and interacting with content and information.

    You can make content accessible in a variety of ways including:

    • Choosing colours for design, categorisation and communication with colour deficiency or dyslexia in mind
    • Writing image and video descriptions on websites and social media for people with low or no vision
    • Including the Deaf or hard of hearing community by including captions and/or Auslan for webinars and videos
    • Considering the impact of long meetings on mental, physical, and cognitive conditions.

    And remember, representation matters. As you create your disability policies – look around the room. If there is no one in that room who would directly benefit from the policies you’re working to create, keep looking for people to include until you do.

      References and Sources

      [1] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2022) People with disability in Australia 2022, catalogue number DIS 72, AIHW, Australian Government

      [2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. People with disability in Australia, Unemployment [Internet]. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2020. Available from: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/disability/people-with-disability-in-australia/contents/employment/unemployment 

      [3] Australian Human Rights Commission. Face the facts: Disability Rights | Australian Human Rights Commission [Internet]. humanrights.gov.au. 2015. Available from: https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/education/face-facts-disability-rights

      [4] Invisible disabilities [Internet]. hiddendisabilitiesstore.com. Available from: https://hiddendisabilitiesstore.com/insights/category/invisible-disabilities#:~:text=Globally%201%20in%207%20of 

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