We need to restructure our workplace policies to reject the idea that certain behaviours and thinking are or are not 'normal'.
When you think of your company’s workplace structure and policies, how much do you know about who they were designed for? Does your company consider the impact of its work culture on Neurodivergent people, people who are sick/have chronic fatigue, and Disabled people? Globally, over half of Disabled people of working age are unemployed. What is often concluded from this statistic is that Disabled people do not have the necessary skills, when in fact it is their systemic exclusion by society in the first place that prevents them from accessing job opportunities. Let’s look at some myths that perpetuate these negative outcomes, in order to unpack how our workplaces can be more inclusive of Disabled folks across the board.
1) “Disabled people just can’t do the job.”
Disabled people are often deemed inferior because of a false and dangerous narrative that they do not “contribute as much” to society, which essentially only values people based on what they can produce. But does the problem lie with Disabled people’s capability or is it the structure of the average job that prevents them from accessing it? This may look different across industries, but could include length of the working day/lack of flexibility, workplace infrastructures, expected and accepted modes of communication, embodiment within the workplace, etc.
Many people are familiar with the medical model of Disability, which positions Disability as a problem in a person’s body that needs to be fixed. The social model, however, recognises that people with impairments are Disabled by the design and organisation of society. This framework emphasises how policies and opportunities intentionally prioritise and normalise Non-Disabled people, while constructing the Disabled experience as something inferior and scary. In the social model, the dis-abling factor then is the very design of our societies which actively creates and maintains barriers for Disabled folks.
The medical model was largely the sole model through which Disability was understood, until the 70s when Disability rights activists responded by asserting the social model to articulate their lived reality and the barriers and marginalisation they face in society. While some Disabled folks do find usefulness for the medical model in order to articulate very real pain and to access medical treatment, there is an over-reliance on this model that fails to recognise the social model. The medical model has become so ingrained, that people do not often acknowledge how they will be Disabled by society at some point in their lives, whether through an immobilising accident, the slowing-down process of aging, or increasingly common cases of long-Covid.
So it is not that Disabled people cannot get the job done, but that the structure of our workplaces actively prevents them from doing so.
2) “Disabled people need to be fixed to become more ‘normal’.”
The social model recognises that “Normal” is not an objective fact, as the medical model assumes. It is not something you can hold or see or measure. It is something that is collectively decided upon — a narrative like time or money or Race or Gender that society creates and enforces through institutions that decide what constitutes “normal” and what falls outside of this story. It was actually the process of industrialisation that helped create the categories of Disability and Non-Disability, which required people to be machines that have the ‘right’ working mind and body. Though people use all sorts of support to meet their daily access needs (think: stairs, alarm clocks, or glasses), these often go unacknowledged in order to “normalise” a narrow parameter of acceptable ways of thinking, expression, and movement that positions other access needs as “abnormal”.
For example, we are all, in fact, Neurodiverse. Neurodiversity is part of the human experience, in which we all understand and interact with the world in different ways. As Fearless Futures’ Senior Consulting Manager Rubie Clarke says, “when the nature of any individual’s Neurodiversity is in conflict with educational and social expectations (the ‘normal’ blueprint), the individual is considered neurodivergent (from ‘the norm’)”. Specific learning ‘difficulties’ are then socially constructed from what the “average” learner is considered to know. When society uses “normalcy” as a baseline, this inherently places Disability as a “condition” that requires a person to adjust around in order to fit into the arbitrary “acceptable” way of being in the world. The further we move from this idea that people can only lead happy, meaningful and valuable lives if they get closer to the “average”, the better people will respect Disabled people’s autonomy and livelihood without pity.
3) “We can’t change all of our workplaces for Disabled people, because they were designed to be as efficient as possible.”
First of all, who determines the bounds of what is efficient? We can trace back what is now considered to be standard norms in our workplaces, as noted, back to the Industrial Revolution and its growth imperative, which was embedded in capitalist systems that rely on racism. This means many characteristics of our workplaces like unexplained urgency or overvaluing individualism are often rooted in practices of capitalism and racism that do not serve what is best for a company’s employees.
Let’s apply this to a few aspects of Disablism in the workplace. When our workplaces operate with a sense of excessive urgency, they inherently privilege those who process information quickly and sacrifice the wisdom of some Neurodivergent people who may not process information at the same rate but who still offer value to our outcomes. Additionally, a consistent emphasis on individualism and individual progress/success values competition over collaboration. As Sara Hendren writes, dependency is rooted in human nature, and Disabled folks are more likely to have the experience and comfortability with dependency that is required for generative productivity.
So when we’re thinking about disrupting Disablism, it’s not just about restructuring our buildings for accessibility, but also disinvesting from a default workplace culture rooted in capitalism, and determining how we can integrate more inclusive models. Investing in equity work accepts that there are no absolutes (urgency and individual work aren’t inherently a problem and even for some disabled or Neurodivergent people, may be comfortable or even preferred), but we need to think about how our workplace cultures and structures speak to the needs of all ways of being and doing — wherever possible. The questions to ask ourselves are:
- Why do we do things this way? Who decided?
- Who are we excluding when we do things this way?
- What constraints are we working within — can we do things differently?
- What would it look like for Disabled, Neurodiverse and sick colleagues to be a valuable part of our work?
And — crucially — we understand that within the system of capitalism there may be ‘risks’ to disinvesting from things like urgency, but we need to ask who should be absorbing ‘risks’ in the process of equity and justice — Disabled folks or large companies that can ultimately afford them? Over time, the whole system will need to change to truly create an anti-Disablist environment.
In conclusion, Disability is an experience infused with value and power. It is not a condition to be remedied, and as we learned, the ideas of “normal” and “Non-Disabled” are social constructions that should be interrogated. In shifting these perspectives, we refuse to accept Disablist societies’ discomfort with Disabled people. Once we see how it is actually society that Disables people, we can shift the burden of responsibility for access away from Disabled folks and onto institutions to redesign transportation, job opportunities, and medical care to meet a diversity of needs. Look out for part two of this series for specific tools on disrupting Disablism in your workplace.