It’s time to break the disability stigma in the workplace | Rouzbeh Pirouz
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Why it’s way past time to break the disability stigma in the workplace

Even in the 21st century, disability is the biggest challenges surrounding diversity and inclusion. Approximately one billion people around the world have some form of disability, according to the World Bank. To put this in context, disabled people make up 15% of the global population. And while only 2-4% live with disabilties that impede their everyday ability to function, all disabled people are discriminated against in the workplace in some form. Here we are going to talk about disability stigma in the workplace.

Why is there a high disability stigma in the workplace today?

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Disabled people are more than a third less likely to land a job than non-disabled applicants. Those are the cold, hard facts that show just how far we are from true inclusion and diversity.

We don’t have access to enough data yet, but it’s like that this will rise substantially due to the pandemic. This is directly impacting the chances of incomes being slashed, fewer career opportunities for disabled people and yet more isolation.

So, why are we dealing with such archaic issues in the 21st century? I believe that the vast challenges surrounding diversity, inclusion and disabled people lie primarily in misplaced fear. And this fear is generated by a lack of education leading to extremely poor understanding of the abilities of disabled people.

This fear leads to the disabled community simply being overlooked, ignored and left under-employed or unemployed. But it doesn’t just affect the community itself – businesses are losing out on vast amounts of untapped potential for no logical reason.

Businesses all around the world, in different sectors and working across different demographics, are missing out. They’re missing opportunities to exercise their ability to be truly inclusive, open and ethical. They’re missing out on employing people with exceptional talent.

Diversity means greater creativity and productivity

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Younger generations appear more mindful of these things, and that gives us much hope for a better future. But there is no reason why traditional business sectors and established companies cannot utilise the wealth of talent offered by disabled workers.

In reality, diversity leads to higher levels creativity and productivity. Disabled people have often accrued valuable life experience that is simply not available to non-disabled people. This generally means they are more creative when presented with challenges or barriers, very resilient, have the ability to look at problems from multiple directions, are above average communicators and exemplary problem solvers. All of these skills are built from living in a world that presents barriers every step of the way.

Businesses should also benefit from employee loyalty from those who realise their talent and experience is valued. There are so many reasons why the skills, experience and abilities of disabled people offer huge potential benefits to employers.

Fear is based on the unconscious drivers in human beings

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Unconscious drivers push people to fear disability. Human beings are social animals that act in herds. It’s easier and feels more natural to stick with what we know, and what is familiar to us. Over the thousands of years of evolution, there is a learned behaviour within us all to view ‘others’ as a threat.

This obviously works on a very subconscious level and is a generalisation. However, it is the biggest challenger to true inclusivity and diversity. We need to change deep-seated instinctive conditioning across an entire species. But there are many ways we can work towards removing the fear from disability.

Reducing the disability stigma is well within all of our grasp. Mostly it’s just about a lack of experience and education surrounding disability, what it really means for people who are living with a disability and learning that most of the barriers are easily surmountable.

According to Jane Hatton, the CEO of accessible job board Evenbreak, much of the fear surrounding disability concerns worrying about offending people. She says that because people worry so much about getting it wrong when attempting to inclusive, it’s counter-productive in terms of building equal work relationships. In other words, much of the onus to reassure and placate goes to disabled people who are only too aware of the awkwardness of others regarding their disability.


Rafts of misinformation has also built much misunderstanding. It is often assumed that disabled employees are less productive, more time-consuming, more expensive, more of a risk, less reliable, less ambitious and more likely to take time off sick that non-disabled employees. None of which is backed up by statistics or evidence.

Do employers think it’s too much work?

The overwhelming feeling of the majority of employers is that it’s all a bit too much hassle. For businesses, therefore, it must surely be simpler and cheaper just to omit disabled people from the workforce. And of course, the more severe a disabled person’s condition or disability the more of this kind of discrimination they’re likely to come across.

Conversely, the less obvious a disability is, the less support that person can expect. It’s just so much harder to be accepted as a disabled person. Often, people are assumed to be more or less disabled than they are, and there is a relatively high lack of understanding what different disabilties even mean in terms of work.

This is the conversation we need to change. Disability is complex and the way that the world views and treats disabled people is similarly so. There are endless questions surrounding disability, from disabled and non-disabled people alike. These include why it’s often assumed that if someone is disabled then they are disabled in every way possible, including mentally, physically and emotionally when logic tells us that can’t be the case.

There is also much to consider surrounding invisible disabilties. How can we ensure people are given the fairest chance in the world of work? Are people actually more disabled by society and the way it works? The only fix for all of these complex issues is education. Inclusion should matter to every one of us.

10 ways business leaders can change disability stigma in their workplace

Here are some ways to reduce disability stigma in the workplace.

  1. Adjust the narrative – disability is not a tragedy. It’s not necessary to pity disabled people. They are not helpless or frightened. They are skilled and resourceful who just happen to face different challenges than others.
  2. Educate – misconceptions grow out of inaccurate assumptions garnered through a lack of experience. Replace this with facts.
  3. Communicate openly – disabled people are generally fine to answer questions, particularly from others who are actually interested in their story.
  4. Employ people inclusively – business leaders should remember that by closing the door to a diverse workforce, they’re also closing the door to creativity and endless possibilities.
  5. Take away the fear – being different is something that we should all celebrate. It’s what sets us apart from each other.
  6. Don’t fall prey to tokenism – disabled people don’t want or need charity. They definitely don’t want to be a token of inclusivity when they’re just as talented as anyone else.
  7. Encourage collaboration – never second guess what disabled people need. Simply include them in the conversation and find out directly from them. Just ask.
  8. Be a positive role model – business leaders should absolutely model best practice by being inclusive, honest and accepting. Become the ally for disabled people and you’ll naturally be part of enabling inclusivity.
  9. Don’t limit opportunities – give equal opportunities to your entire workforce, including disabled people.
  10. Be more caring – empathy is a much-ignored quality of a good business leader. Simply imagine you’re in someone else’s shoes and treat them as you would like to be treated. Obviously, you wouldn’t want to feel isolated or segregated or see that people are awkward around you.