Is there a bias against disability in your Unconscious Bias training?

Blurry picture of 4 individuals wearing business clothes and a pair of eyeglasses

Disabilities are largely ignored in most unconscious bias training. Here’s why that is important and how to fix it.

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, if you live in the US you have probably at least heard the term “unconscious bias” and perhaps even taken unconscious bias training. Unconscious bias (also sometimes referred to as “implicit bias”) is a term used to categorize social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness.

Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing them. When a situation is fuzzy or lacks structure, humans default to stereotypes. Additional, we tend to run away from people and things that make us uncomfortable. When we do that without thinking about it, and without even thinking about whether or not we should be thinking about it, that is unconscious bias.

Unconscious Bias Training

Courses on unconscious bias are a standard introductory form of diversity training. “See, we care, we have unconscious bias training” shout people in HR and D&I from the rooftops. But most companies run #Diversish D&I programs. Being #Diversish is defined as running diversity & inclusion programs that don’t include disabilities as an equal component to LGBTQ, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, and other “protected status” categories. In #Diversish programs, disability either doesn’t factor into unconscious bias training at all at all, or if it does, isn’t done particularly effectively or sometimes even respectfully.

In an article titled “Why Diversity Programs Fail”, Harvard Business Review said that employees can be easily taught to respond correctly to a bias questionnaire, but that the correct answers are soon forgotten. Lasting positive effects rarely last more than a day or two, and backlash can actually result in the form of creating explicit biases where there were none before the training.

How should unconscious bias training incorporate disability?

Even the best unconscious bias training isn’t going to help bias against people with disabilities if it doesn’t raise the fact that this type of bias occurs, preferably in a relevant and respectful manner. Think about the following elements when formulating your unconscious bias training solution:

Consider your course format: Holding the class in the form of an interactive workshop rather than a lecture-based training might lead to more engaged students as well as leave more of a lasting empathy. Incorporating social justice and current affairs related to disabilities may make an otherwise dry topic more interesting. Making the course experience-based would also also help in this regard.

Don’t use negative messaging: When unconscious bias training is directly connected to some type of public or rumored incident, the messaging is inherently negative. “We have to sit through this because someone screwed up” is the general sentiment, and the result is attendees can become extremely defensive.

Don’t be “overly legal”: talking about reasonable accommodations and the ADA is a guaranteed way to put your audience to sleep.

Use “People First” language: I am not wheelchair bound, nor am I confined to a wheelchair. I am a wheelchair user, someone who uses a mobility aid, someone with a congenital mobility disability.

Use relevant disability statistics: Citing 30 year old statistics on how deaf individuals who primarily use sign language have a 4th grade reading level isn’t going to do anything positive for either your students, or any deaf individuals that you are attempting to recruit. Instead, try to focus on positive statistics, like the majority of disability accommodations costing under $500.

Using statistics that make the employment issue for people with disabilities worse than it seems doesn’t help either. Stating that only 40 % of people with disabilities are employed is true, but that statistic makes the problem seem insurmountable. A less-imposing statistic is the unemployment rate for people with disabilities being 8 % while it is 3.8 % for the general population. That is also true, but frames the problem in a way that it feels like one’s individual efforts might actually make a dent in the problem.

Don’t use “inspiration porn” based examples: The term “inspiration porn” was coined by the late Stella Young as part of her TED Talk “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.” Stella was adamant that “feel good” stories like “man in wheelchair completes marathon” do nothing but objectify people with disabilities for the purposes of making people without disabilities think “look, if they can do it, so can we.” Simultaneously, these types of headlines make other people with disabilities feel worse about themselves and result in lower their self-esteem.

Do the Harvard Implicit Association test: You can’t fix a bias when you don’t know that you have one. The Harvard Implicit Association Testmeasures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g. people with disabilities) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy). The underlying concept behind this survey is that responses are easier and faster when the survey participant identify terms as being closely related. By measuring reaction times between images associated with disabilities and good/bad images, one can determine whether or not the test taker has a bias either for or against people with disabilities.

Leave the unconscious bias training with a Call To Action: Volunteer at an non-profit pertaining to disabilities, review your department’s accessibility, join your disability ERG, mentor someone with a disability. The options are endless.

Things to do outside of training to reduce Unconscious bias against people with disabilities

To build a culture and workplace that successfully includes employees with disabilities, the first place to start is assessing and remediating all internal tools, especially those being acquired or provided by third parties.

  • Does your organization require your employees to order office supplies from a cost management vendor? If yes, it is hard to legitimately claim your organization values everyone if they use Coupa, since Coupa can’t even be bothered to close caption the videos on their website.
  • Does your organization require everyone to go through a single travel service? If yes, it is hard to state that inclusion is at the core of your corporate mission if you use Amex Global, their tools don’t work for people with substantial vision loss or people who can’t use mice.

Start with the tools. It will take the longest to fix, and any program to recruit people with disabilities will fail if the tools these people need to use aren’t accessible. Once you’ve at least started to remediate internal tools, then you can look at things like facilities, recruiting at disability-specific events, vocational rehabilitation, and all the other things necessary for a person with a disability to be successful at their job.

Follow up post training and assess assess assess

Diversity is a subject that is usually inadequately followed up on or assessed, despite many well-established objective and subjective measurement mechanisms that are available. The following areas and types of surveys should be done:

  1. Diversity knowledge: Pre and post diversity training
  2. Employee engagement and organizational health: make sure you look at each dimension you are measuring from three perspectives: corporate average, average for employees who belong to one or more diverse groups, and average for employees who don’t belong to any diverse groups.
  3. Employee lifecycle: selection, recruitment, onboarding, training, performance , and exit interviews (with particular attention to turnover rates)
  4. Employee resource groups feedback: ERG members will be your most engaged employees. Examine how connected they feel to the enterprise, and solicit input from non-ERG members to learn why they don’t participate.
  5. Efforts outside D&I: this would include efforts like supplier diversity, ICT accessibility, and community outreach.


For unconscious bias training to be effective, attendees need to have a deep and profound understanding it at the end of it for all subjects, not just the subjects that they have an interest in or natural empathy for. Unconcious bias training needs to have a comprehensive agenda that avoids being #Diversish by including people with disabilities equally with all other topics being addressed.

This *should* be a no brainer. Companies that are more diverse have higher profits. Diversity is not the objective; isn’t really about being a better, more ethical company. Diversity is a means to an ends; it’s about maximizing shareholder value. A rising diversity tide should raise all boats. Don’t be #Diversish. And if after a hard look, your company is #Diversish, the first thing you should toss out the window is unconscious bias training that ignores or pays short shrift to disability.

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