Disability Justice in the Workplace

By Kim Tran, Ph.D

We’ve all done it.

“Are you going to the all-hands?”

“Let’s talk about it during the standing meeting.”

“It’s easy, I’ll walk you through it.”

“That’s an insane timeline.”

We often use language and ideas that center the body and mind and makes assumptions about how we move and think. Even Nike, hoping to inspire the masses, tells us to “dream crazier.” These common turns of phrase sometimes use imagery that is close to the actual practice of an activity, but more likely, deviates far from it. Instead of accuracy, many workplace metaphors are employed as an attempt to convey meaning to something that is difficult to explain; in other words, they’re a linguistic shortcut.

Language scholars Murray Knowles and Rosamund Moon describe metaphors like these as an aide that helps people communicate by tying an abstract concept to a concrete idea; making it easier to understand. Yet, while we strive for a shared terminology to make communication easier, these same phrases frequently rely on negative ideas about the people who make up our offices and teams. When we say things like:

That’s such a lame idea.


The presentation was tone deaf.

We’re making vast and problematic assumptions about bodies, what they can do and what we want them to do. Workplace metaphors like these often rely on ableist ideas.

The Center for Disability Rights defines ableism as, “A set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other.” Ableism is pervasive, subtle and ubiquitous; it’s everywhere.

At its best, ableism is the byproduct of unacknowledged advantages we each have that allow us to move through the abled world with physical and mental ease. At its worst, ableism in the workplace positions disability as bad, rare, unwanted and impossible to overcome.

According to the United States Census, nearly 20% of Americans have a disability; over 56 million people. Definitions of disability vary. The most conservative (albeit common) framing of disability derives from what some researchers term “difficulty with hearing, vision, cognition, walking or climbing stairs, as well as difficulty with self-care and independent living.” This starting point for considering disability foregrounds what disabled people can’t do relative to those who can walk, speak or think in conventionally recognized ways.

However, a more expansive and holistic definition of disability centers the ways that social constraints shape the lives of disabled people. Disability justice activists from RESIST ask, “What do we do with bodies that have limitations, that are different (no matter how much we want to change them)? How do we acknowledge that all bodies are different, while also not ignoring the very real ways that certain bodies are labeled and treated as “disabled?” Instead of thinking of disabled people as those who are “unable” to do something, disability rights activists think of disability itself as “something partly created by the world we live in.”

If we take their call to reimagine disability as a social construction seriously, then the words we use matter; and matter a lot. In Seeing What We Know: Disability and Theories of Metaphor, Amy Vidali argues that ableist language relies upon false assumptions that everyone sees, speaks, hears, feels, and moves in the same un-disabled ways. Her work underscores the importance of shifting our communication norms.

Language is often the first step in making our workplaces more inclusive and diverse. By thinking critically about common phrasing that can either erase or create stigma around disability we can use language that is both more specific and inclusive. Consider the following substitutions.

Standing Meeting → Weekly Meeting

Walk Through → Take You Through It

Tone Deaf → Oblivious

(Find more alternatives here)

While language is vital to workplace equity, it is only the beginning.

As a professor, I’ve become well versed in student accommodations. On college campuses, students are given extended amounts of time to complete their assignments, separate low stimulus testing environments and I’m often wearing a microphone or lecturing next to a sign language interpreter. The substantive nature of university accomodations often makes me wonder about their conspicuous absence in the workplace and what that means for who we leave out, how, and why.

Conversations about disability must necessarily begin with language, but broaden out to consider more encompassing lenses. Universal accommodations can re-shape office environments; affecting everything from the placement of door handles to the provision of sign language interpreters for hiring interviews. If disability is indeed partly created by the world we live in, we must all work together to create a different kind of society in which disability and all the other identities with which it intersects, are valued and integrated. This radical reimagining can and must begin in the workplace.

Willie Jackson