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Dan Robertson5 min read

“Assume that I can”: The damaging impact of disability stereotypes in the workplace

“Assume that I can”: The damaging impact of disability stereotypes in the workplace  

“Assume that I can, so maybe I will”, a strong sentiment which echoes throughout CoorDown’s latest video campaign to promote the rights of people with Down syndrome. The Italian non-profit organisation published this powerful campaign in acknowledgement of World Down Syndrome Day on the 21st of March.  

The striking video features 22-year-old Madison, a member of the Down community, who sets out to challenge society’s stereotypical thinking on what people with Down syndrome are capable of. From fitness to education, romantic relationships to living independently, Madison addresses the biases held by her teachers, parents, members of the public - and the video watcher - directly.  

The campaign’s message centres around the dangerous link between stereotypes and self-fulfilling prophecies. Addressing her parents, Maddison states, “You assume that I cannot live on my own, so you don’t encourage me to live on my own, so I don’t live on my own”. Her message is quite simple: “Your assumption becomes reality […] so assume that I can live on my own”. 

This compelling campaign underscores the effect that society’s biases, expectations and assumptions can have on those they are placed upon. It sends a clear signal that, when we hold stereotypes about a person or group, we tend to treat those people according to our expectations, which, in turn, shapes their reality.  

To avoid indirectly placing unnecessary limitations upon someone, we must work to consciously unveil and address our biases and stereotypes to ensure we operate with inclusivity, fairness and respect in mind – regardless of the person’s background, ability or identity 

Reinforcing the negative self-fulfilling prophecy 

One in six of the global population is disabled. According to Scope, 3 out of 4 disabled people have experienced negative attitudes or behaviour in the last five years, with these behaviours including: making assumptions about their abilities, accusing them of faking their disability, and staring.  

In the UK, despite disability being a protected characteristic under The Equality Act 2010, a Ciphr survey found that almost 10% of employment tribunals were related to disability discrimination, with respondents citing, “I feel my disability has been a factor in my not getting jobs I’ve applied for.” Likewise, disability claims were the most reported type of discrimination in the US. 

People with disabilities continue to be subject to marginalisation, or exclusionary behaviours, as ableism – the privilege of not having a disability – creates obstacles for accessing support, resources and career opportunities. In fact, a Scope survey found that disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed, having to make 60% more job applications compared to non-disabled people.  

Furthermore, Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that disabled workers are more likely to be on unstable zero-hour contracts and are overrepresented in lower-paid work, with more than three million disabled employees earning less than £15 an hour.  

These figures indicate how career limitations can have a long-term effect on the financial security and independence of disabled workers, which can further reinforce the negative cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy described so well in CoorDown’s campaign. 

Workplaces are still not set up to support employees with disabilities 

The stubborn hurdle of ableism prevails throughout the employee lifecycle. A report by Business Disability Forum states that only 10% of disabled employees said it was easy to receive the adjustments they needed to properly perform their roles. For example, job advertisements remain incompatible with assistive technology; interview formats do not always offer accessible adjustments, and many workspaces lack physically accessible entrances and accommodations.  

But it is not just disability-related adjustments – or the lack thereof – that is affecting employees with disabilities. Disabled workers are also experiencing bullying and harassment, limited career development opportunities, and difficulty in accessing programmes and initiatives designed to support wellbeing. In turn, this glass ceiling effect can negatively affect mental and physical health, self-esteem, morale and job satisfaction, once again feeding into the self-fulfilling prophecy discussed above. 

The biggest challenge with ableism and disability discrimination, is that it is often so ingrained within society that the exclusionary behaviours remain unconscious. The key to true disability inclusion – and inclusion as a whole – is to turn unconscious bias into conscious inclusion, and to actively embed diversity, equity and inclusion into your organisational processes and strategy. Or, as Madison puts it, “Assume that I can do that job”.  

4 ways employers can become more disability inclusive

We’ve set out four strategies that employers can implement today, to make steps towards a more disability inclusive workplace. 

  1. Introduce mandatory inclusivity training. Accountability for change starts with leadership, but employees at all levels must take personal responsibility. Leaders must be trained about the importance of disability inclusion and the effect of biases within decision-making processes. This training would seek to bust some of the myths, misconceptions and stigma around disability at work, allowing managers to assess employees on their skills and values, rather than biased perceptions.

  2. Inclusive hiring practices. Employers should seek to hire candidates with the right skills and attributes, making sure that all candidates – with all abilities – can easily participate in the process. Managers should utilise diverse talent pools, connecting with colleges, vocational schools and disability resource centres to access otherwise missed talent.

  3. Embed disability inclusivity throughout the employee lifecycle. Organisations should audit all stages of the employee lifecycle to seek out biases, from hiring to performance reviews to promotions. Be mindful of exclusionary language in job advertisements, and instead use the opportunity to actively encourage applications from candidates with disabilities, outlining how they can request reasonable adjustments if needed.

  4. Listen to employees and colleagues with disabilities. Employee surveys, listening groups and employee resource groups are useful tools for collecting feedback. Employers should listen to the challenges and concerns of disabled colleagues, taking their feedback into consideration and working to implement an action plan to support them. Disability networks within the workplace can provide employees with psychologically safe spaces, improving their sense of belonging, and if used correctly, uplift their previously unheard voices. For more information, explore our webinar on employee resource groups. 

Let’s work together  

At FAIRER Consulting, we offer a plethora of training courses and consultation services, designed to enhance DE&I within your workplace. Explore our unconscious bias training and conscious inclusion training, crafted to unveil hidden biases and actively work to mitigate them.  

Alternatively, browse our consultation services, such as Developing a diversity and inclusion strategy, or take our Take5 Rapid Review audit to gain insight into your organisation’s current processes, from a DE&I lens.  

Can’t find what you’re looking for? Contact us today for a complimentary one-to-one session with one of our specialist DE&I consultants, and we’ll create a bespoke plan for your business needs.


Dan Robertson

Dan Robertson is MD of FAIRER Consulting and Global Head of ED&I Advisory Services at Hays International. Over the last 15 years Dan has spent his time supporting global business leaders to transform their ideas into meaningful action, with a focus on inclusion as a strategic management issue, bias mitigation and inclusive leadership.