The learning curve blog

Helpful advice for online course creators, businesses, and entrepreneurs

Unconscious Bias and the Disabled

by | Mar 26, 2017 | Business Training

Filling knowledge gaps and building awareness in the workplace.  It’s how DigitalChalk serves the small to midsized business segment.  Today we continue our exploration into a topic that’s been studied for decades and has been getting more recent attention in our work environments and in the courts.  It’s an important subject that should be on the mind of every business owner and Human Resource professional, because – well – it’s already in our minds.

Unconscious Bias – our unintentional preferences toward people that surface every time we interact with someone.

We tend to categorize the people in our lives, our social universe.  Family, friends, classmates, colleagues.  We don’t even have to think about it; it’s how we organize and maintain order of our world.  Take a moment and think about the people in your work life.  How do you group them?  Resident geek, unapproachable CEO, invisible janitorial staff?  Or do you group people based on “differences” like age, gender, ethnicity, or disability?

You probably do both without even being aware of it, and both ways of thinking are examples of unconscious bias.  Defining a person based on their job title, while still a biased way of thinking about a co-worker, is something most of us don’t have a problem with.  But, unconscious biases that conflict with what we feel are our cores values and beliefs regarding respect for other people are harder for us to accept in ourselves.  In fact, our unconscious biases, even when they conflict with our core values and beliefs are much more prevalent than we think.Unconscious Bias and the Disabled

How does unconscious bias kick in, then, when you interact with an employee, applicant or client who is disabled? What is the first thing you think when you look at that person?  The unconscious thinking we don’t recognize in ourselves and the people we hire can damage corporate culture, increase risk of discrimination charges and have a negative impact on productivity caused by employee dissatisfaction and missed hiring opportunities.  This may explain why, among the disabled, the largest minority group in the country, there is a 79% rate of unemployment and underemployment.
DigitalChalk: Unconscious Bias and the Disabled

Any corporate diversity program must include active efforts to recruit applicants based as much as possible on an applicant’s ability or qualifications.  Studies show that 67% of us are “uncomfortable” interacting with people obviously disabled, so the challenge of overcoming unconscious bias must be addressed first during the interview process.

As an example, in recent years, many symphonies have begun conducting “blind” auditions, where an applicant is evaluated only on musical aptitude. Of course, “blind” interviewing won’t work in every hiring situation, and there are sometimes valid safety concerns for a disabled worker in certain workplace environments, but where it’s possible, we must educate ourselves to look at an applicant’s qualifications before anything else.

Clearing the interview hurdle is only the first step in strengthening a diversity program to include disabled employees.  Initiatives must not end with getting disabled applicants in the door.  Once on-boarded, a successful diversity program must also include steps to ensure the continued success of disabled workers. In a 5-year study, the largest of its kind, Serota Consulting and the National Organization on Disability found that employee satisfaction ratings of disabled employees were consistently lower than those of non-disabled employees.  The study found that the major difference between the two employee groups was that “employees with disabilities felt there was less opportunity for achievement in their current positions and reported they felt less frequently encouraged to advance.”DigitalChalk: Unconscious Bias and the Disabled

Any employee who feels undervalued will not perform at their highest potential.  In turn, their lack of enthusiasm for their company and their position can negatively impact productivity and morale, both of which can be tied to decreased revenue.  If you do not address your management team’s unconscious biases toward disabled employees, you risk further alienating an employee group that already voices low job satisfaction.DigitalChalk: Unconscious Bias and the Disabled

So, what can be done to ensure your business practices are inclusive of disabled applicants, employees, and clients?  Following are some actions you can take to address unconscious bias toward the disabled people in your workplace:

  • Start by including disability as a part of your diversity program
  • Establish hiring goals and put metrics in place to measure progress
  • Train supervisors and hiring managers on unconscious bias toward the disabled
  • Provide training for all employees that builds awareness of implicit biases and ways to overcome them
  • Create recruiting materials that include disability in your diversity program
  • Consider an employee resource group for disabled employees
  • Don’t treat disability as taboo; have mandatory discussions around it
  • Make sure all positions have documented descriptions and measure applicants against their ability to perform them with reasonable accommodations, if necessary

Want to learn about your unconscious bias toward the disabled?  You can take the Implicit-Association Test (IAT) here.  It takes about 10 minutes and will measure your automatic preference toward abled and disabled people.  It’s pretty telling – maybe, alarming.

To encourage and support your efforts to build and maintain a more inclusive workplace and address the damaging effects of unconscious biases, we offer the following courses through our curated content library:

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