Of all the "isms" - racism, ageism, sexism and others in the category, there's one form of discrimination and bias in the workplace that's not discussed as much: ableism.

Decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act came into place, the rate of employment for people with disabilities is still considerably low. Many people around the world still cling to misconceptions about disabilities without realizing they're discriminating. The result? Ableism continues to happen every day in the workplace.

Whether intentionally or not, ableism often isn't addressed properly due to a lack of education and empathy. Small business owners should make a conscious effort to improve inclusivity in their company, especially for people with disabilities.

How to create a fair work environment

While ableism is still a huge problem in our society, every change for the better makes a difference. Here are some ways you can help avoid this form of discrimination and create a fair working environment for everyone on your team.

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1. Let go of stereotypes and assumptions

In an interview, Allie Cannington, American Association of People with Disabilities board member, indicated non-disabled people view any form of disability negatively. She noted that there is a common misconception that depicts people with disabilities as always in need.

In her sentiments, she said just because two people can't complete the same task in the exact amount of time and in the same way does not mean that one of them is not capable of completing the job. Every employee has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses.

Another common assumption is that people's disabilities are always visible. If anything, neurodiversity research indicates brain differences are normal, not shortcomings. For a fair work environment, we must commit to kicking out these assumptions and view neuro-differences as positive opportunities to diversify team strengths.

2. Asses each employee individually

Treating and assessing each of your employees independently is one way of avoiding ableism and maintaining a fair work environment. If anything, what matters is how an employee performs their work and interacts with the team, not the condition of their mental or physical health. When assessing any of your employees, your main concern should be their individual results:

  • Do your employees work well together to accomplish tasks?
  • Is it necessary for all your employees to work together?
  • Do any of your employees struggle with some tasks?
  • If so, can you provide reasonable accommodation, or can you approach it using a different perspective?

Instead of comparing two employees, remember their strengths and weaknesses will probably be very different. Focus on helping your employees reach their own potential at work, not necessarily an across-the-board standard in every category.

3. Educate your employees on inclusive vocabulary

Managers and coworkers aren't always aware they're making ableist remarks in the first place. Take the time to educate your employees. Rather than using ableist language, guide them on how to use an inclusive language. While at it, it is important to be consistent in your actions. They will look to you as an example of how to treat the people they work with.

Start by addressing the most common terms that fuel ableism in your company. It's also important to check how you address your employees who don't have visible disabilities. We can't emphasize the importance of using the right language enough:

  • Avoid using words that refer to disabilities and conditions in ways that may perpetuate ableist assumptions. For instance, do not say "wheelchair-bound."
  • Avoid using outdated words such as "handicapped," even if they were used in the past.
  • Avoid using any language that may present the disability as an unfortunate occurrence or tragedy.

If you have an employee with a disability, and you're not sure how a certain phrase would make them feel, ask! If you have a question like this, ask them in private and be respectful. Let them know that your intention is to understand, not to offend.

4. Rethink how you hire

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It's one thing to say you're an EEO (equal employment opportunity), and it's another thing entirely to act like it. During the hiring process, make accommodations available to the candidates who need them. This could come in the form of a sign language interpreter or a wheelchair-accessible interview location. You can have them go through your HR representatives, who should be trained to handle those accommodations.

When you create recruiting ads for potential employees, try to showcase a variety of individuals working on your team. A more diverse workforce is likely to give you better results because employees can learn from each other, and problem-solving improves.

The key takeaway

Whether or not it's intentional, there's no excuse for ableism in the workplace. Small business owners can make important strides by welcoming diversity in the hiring process, educating employees on how to avoid ableist language, and assessing performance in a way that recognizes each individual.