October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, a time dedicated to educating the public about disability employment issues and celebrating the many and varied contributions of workers with disabilities in the United States.
It’s important to celebrate the abilities and contributions of workers with disabilities because, just like other marginalized groups, people with disabilities are regularly left on the sidelines in the workplace. They often experience subtle forms of aggression or microaggressions.
A microaggression is an indirect, subtle, possibly unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. Usually, these take the form of statements, actions, incidents, or exclusions. People with disabilities experience these microaggressions all the time. Sometimes even the most open-minded people may be unconsciously biased about their differently-abled counterparts. Still, microaggressions can be hurtful and painful for people with disabilities.
One common microaggression towards people with disabilities in the workplace is not inviting someone to an event because of a perceived lack of ability to participate, or not being prepared for a person with disabilities’ attendance at a meeting (for instance, not having a chair removed for a wheelchair space). And often, those with slower or delayed processing time for speaking are not provided with the necessary processing time.
Other examples of microaggressions towards people with disabilities in the workplace include not presuming competence or presuming incompetence, asking personal questions about devices, orthotics or whatever equipment the person uses, pushing a person’s wheelchair without asking them first, and saying something like, “You don’t look disabled.”
It is important to remember that we’ve probably all committed microaggression towards people with disabilities at some point in our lives. The good news is that we can learn and grow if we have the humility to admit to our mistakes and apologize for the emotional wake left behind. If you feel you have committed a microaggression towards a person with disabilities, or any person for that matter, be accountable for your actions and be willing to apologize for the emotional wake you may have left behind. Check your context and address any harmful assumptions or stereotypes.
If a person with disabilities points out to you that you, in fact, have committed a microaggression, listen carefully to what they tell you and if you are caught off guard, pause and realize that even though it may be hard for you to hear, there might be some learning here. Recognize that this person has taken the time and perhaps the courage to have the conversation with you and offer you feedback. Take responsibility for your emotional wake and ask them where else they have seen you commit microaggressions or how long they’ve been noticing this. You want to be aware so that you can avoid the behavior in the future. Take responsibility for your emotional wake. Apologize. Then describe your future focus. What will you do? What are the next steps you will take to avoid committing microaggressions? Tell them why it’s important for you to receive this feedback from them. Show gratitude and thank them for the opportunity to learn and grow.
As we celebrate the abilities of the diverse contributions of employees with disabilities this month, let’s also bring a greater awareness of the microaggressions they regularly experience. Awareness can create positive changes and fewer microaggressions towards people with disabilities. That would be a cause for celebration!