ADVICE: Business leaders need to think holistically about tackling ableism

Recent research by the Centre of Research Excellence in Disability and Health has found that “about two thirds of people with disability have reported some kind of violence”, and “women with a disability were more than twice as likely to report sexual violence in the past year compared to women without disability”. The horrifying stats highlight the reality that ableism is ever-present across all aspects of our society and causing real damage.

In this interview, Ainslee Hooper, Anthropologist & Disability Consultant, shares her expert advice and experiences regarding ableism in Australian workplaces, how ableism can and should be managed, how it can be mitigated for future generations, and why a holistic approach is required to tackling ableism.

  • What are the most commonly overlooked forms of ableism you’ve noticed in the Australian workforce? 

I have found the most commonly overlooked forms of ableism are often covert. For example, people are discouraged from going for opportunities that come up in the workplace because superiors have already assumed the individual cannot perform the job like their peers. Still, there is no evidence to show this is the case. It is due to stereotypes that persist.

Another common one has been people with disabilities being excluded from opportunities because the workplace has not considered how things could be done differently. The lockdowns resulting from COVID19 and how the Australian workforce pivoted to keep things running were a real wake-up call. Many workers with disabilities have previously been told accommodations would be too difficult to implement, not logistically possible, etc., and yet these accommodations have been implemented due to the pandemic.

The final one, which is surprisingly huge, is the lack of disability in diversity plans. With disability being the largest minority group, it amazes me that disability is still glaringly absent from many plans. I have found the main reason for this is people are scared to touch disability, so they leave it. This solves nothing and instead allows problems to persist. There are diversity targets for the employment of people with disabilities, but that alone does nothing.

  • How has ableism in the Australian workplace evolved in the last few years?

I want to say things have evolved, but we have such a long way to go. We currently rank 21st out of 29 OECD countries regarding people with disabilities participating in the workforce. So, there are not only issues that persist within the workforce for employees with a disability but also cases of people with disabilities gaining employment, which is a whole other conversation due to the Disability Employment Services system’s flaws.  

  • What has been the pandemic’s impact on ableism and how people with disabilities are viewed in the workplace?

As mentioned previously, there have been considerable changes in the workplace as a result of COVID19. The biggest ones that have benefited people with disabilities are remote working and meetings via technology such as Zoom. Their peers without disabilities have also benefited from these and, as a result, are more aware of the issues faced by people with disabilities. Although for a business that does not have an employee with a disability, this may not be as obvious to them.

  • How are you working with business leaders to combat ableism?

I have been pleased to see businesses being proactive in reaching out to get guidance on improving the experience for not only workers with disabilities but also for their consumers with disabilities. I take a holistic approach, so I’m working with businesses in various ways and at all levels, from top to bottom.

I encourage all businesses I work with to implement a Disability Action Plan, making them aware of issues not previously considered. Working closely with businesses to assist them through this process, they soon see how easy it is to combat ableism and the gaps they need to focus on.

I am also doing speaking engagements to talk about my lived experience. I find storytelling is the most effective way of making people understand the problems and the impact these problems have on people with disabilities. I am always pleased to see people motivated to create change as a result of these sessions.

Many businesses have committees or groups focused on disability-related issues. I perform audits to identify any problems impacting these groups’ smooth functioning or committees to address critical problems effectively.

Finally, I’m also helping businesses identify issues for consumers with disabilities by talking with consumers about their experiences in a confidential manner to provide businesses with insights to gaps and recommendations on improving the experience. My approach to combating ableism is holistic, and I encourage businesses to think holistically too.

  • What are the most common challenges you come across in your work? Why do you think this is?

There are two common challenges I have come across. The first is lack of knowledge. One of my favourite sayings is from Anais Nin – “We see things as we are, not as they are.” There is so much unintentional ableism out there. When people hear the word ‘ableism,’ they often get defensive. It’s rarely intentional but stems from a lack of understanding of what the experience of disability is really like. The problems people with disabilities face are rarely what businesses think.

The second common challenge comes down to money, which brings me to another favourite quote, this one by Olivier Nourry – “Ableism is the natural child of Inaccessibility.” I still often hear businesses say providing for accessibility is not always feasible due to financial constraints. While this is a reality for many, and I don’t dispute this, I would love to see a shift from expense to investment because it allows more people to access your business. I am currently in talks with various parties to discuss how businesses can overcome these issues. Watch this space.

  • What’s your ambition for how ableism is managed in our workplaces?

For starters, we need more disability representation in the workforce. People with disabilities must be the ones who are leading addressing the problems. However, we can’t manage ableism from within workplaces unless we also combat ableism from the outside. My ambition is to encourage and assist businesses in fighting ableism at all levels, and it doesn’t have to be all at once. It’s a slow process, but we can get there. My ambition is to help businesses see the possibilities and the wins this will bring to their customers and society.

About the expert

Ainslee Hooper is an Anthropologist & Disability Consultant with a lived experience of disability as a lifelong wheelchair user. Her business, Ainslee Hooper Consulting helps businesses and organisations identify and remove invisible barriers to reduce the risk of ableism and be more inclusive and accessible. She is also available for speaking engagements tailored to a wide variety of audiences. Ainslee is currently completing a Ph.D @ Deakin University with her thesis examining the experiences of people with disabilities in Geelong during COVID19. You can contact Ainslee on 

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Image description: Ainslee is sitting in a garden in a mustard-coloured sweater. She has red hair, hazel eyes, and is wearing glasses.