Disability Awareness Month: Ableism and ally-ship in the workplace

For people with disabilities, navigating a society constructed by and for people considered to have “typical” abilities can be a constant battle, and one that further entrenches the discrimination they face.

According to the 2010 census, nearly one in five Americans experience disability. Some people’s disabilities are visible to others and include physical disabilities such as blindness, deafness, prosthetic limbs, or wheelchair usage. Other people’s disabilities may be less visible or not visually apparent at all, such as behavioral health conditions (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress), Traumatic Brain Injuries, developmental and intellectual disabilities, migraines, or cancer. 

Despite the wide variety of disabilities and the high percentage of Americans with disabilities, disability discrimination remains widespread and entrenched. This is partly due to what is called “ableism.”

What is ableism?

Ableism refers not just to the discrimination experienced by people with disabilities, but also the reinforcement of past and current practices and constructs that were created by and for individuals perceived as “typically” abled. Examples of ableism in the workplace include using language that perpetuates stereotypes, assuming that a job applicant with a disability may be less qualified for the position they have applied for, designing buildings without ramps, bathrooms, or adequate space for wheelchair users, questioning why an employee with mental health conditions may need extended time off work.

Many people are working hard to reduce ableism and move King County toward a more disability-inclusive environment both in physical and attitudinal approaches within King County. We can all support this work by breaking down ableism and becoming an ally alongside people with disabilities.

How do I become an ally for people with disabilities?

While ableism is entrenched in our society, there are steps we can all take toward becoming allies for people with disabilities. Examples of allyship provided by the Office of Equity and Social Justice and Department of Human Resource’s Disability Services team include:

  • Normalize conversations about disabilities and accommodations. If you are a supervisor or manager, remind your team King County supports employees with disabilities and they can come to you or speak to their HR manager or Disability Services if they think they may need an accommodation. A great way for supervisors to connect with employees to begin potential conversations around accommodations is to simply ask your employees, “How can I help you?” If you are a team member, bring the topic up in meetings or remind other employees about it.

Here is a link to Disability Services at King County. You can also reach out for questions around accommodations by phone at 206-263-9329 or by email at DisabilityServices@kingcounty.gov.

  • Advocate for inclusive and universal design. If spaces are being designed or meetings are being coordinated, encourage decisionmakers to reach out to or Disability Services to ensure they meet the needs of individuals with disabilities.
  • Educate yourself. Research disabilities and ableism. A few great resources include
  • Challenge your beliefs. Challenge your beliefs about how jobs are to be performed and recognize that everyone brings different strengths, abilities, and methods to getting a job done effectively. If you are a supervisor, try thinking creatively about technology and accommodations in the workplace in order to open more opportunities for people with disabilities.
  • Educate others. When you hear people use ableist language, or see people act with ableism, take the opportunity to inform, educate and challenge, just as you would do for any other individuals who have experienced marginalization and underrepresentation of their voices being heard by others.

The intersectionality of disability and racism

Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) have higher levels of disability than white people, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Because of our country’s systemic racism, BIPOC are more adversely affected by their disability than white people. BIPOC with disabilities experience both racism and ableism when seeking education, medical care, and jobs. The disparity in outcomes are profound. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among adults with a disability, Black adults had a higher unemployment rate in 2019 (11.8 percent) than Latinx (8.6 percent), Asian (6.7 percent), and White (6.6 percent) adults.

This means that, in order to further King County’s commitment to equity, when we act as allies and challenge ableism, we must lead with the experiences of BIPOC who have disabilities.

More resources

For more information on ally-ship, take a look at this article from the Human Development Institute. If you would like more information on resources for supervisors and employees about furthering our commitment to including people with disabilities in work, home and community, check out this list of resources from King County’s Disability Services

Visit this blogpost for information on a panel discussion entitled “A conversation on the impacts of the pandemic while living with a disability,” which will be held on October 29th from 10:00 – 11:30 a.m.

Questions? Contact balancedyou@kingcounty.gov.

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