Implicit Bias

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A young happy man with Down syndrome with his mentoring friend celebrating success indoors at school.

A colleague recently talked with me about her concerns when she hears uninformed statements and disparaging comments regarding people with disabilities. She feels very comfortable sharing her knowledge to educate those who have biases based on race or gender. She wanted to make sure she becomes as comfortable with responding when it comes to disability as well. We agreed that the concern is not with the words (disabled, people first, and even more antiquated terms) but with the overarching lack of value that is sometimes expressed.

Our conversation, which continues, leads me down the rabbit hole of disability bias. What better time to address perception than during Disability Awareness month? Though we most often believe that we are fair and equitable in our personal and work evaluations of others, most of us have unconscious or implicit biases. These attitudes and beliefs are usually somewhat automatic and tend to come from personal experiences, upbringing, and media.

I think my colleague has been seeing the output of implicit bias, which are microaggressions (she already knew this). These are subtle, but demeaning comments or actions, which are often unintentional and reinforce stereotypes of marginalized groups. Examples of simple microaggressions include ignoring a person in a wheelchair and asking their companion what they might want to order in a restaurant. This sends the message that the person is not capable of responding themselves.

Why is it that even in 2023 individuals still tend to have more negative associations with disabilities? Unfortunately, some of these associations aren’t seen as negative, though they can actually be quite harmful. When a person talks down or uses baby talk with an adult with a more significant disability, or when people feel ‘obligated’ to help because the disabled are seen as having ‘less’ – each of these continue the long past stereotypes of disability. While Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts have created national conversations about our implicit biases, they often do not include disability in the discussions.

I don’t have a firm answer to my colleague’s questions, though I know we will learn more as we talk about specific situations. For now, we can each start looking at disability in a different way. Instead of looking at a person with a disability with the ‘how limited they must be’ or with a ‘what can they bring to the table’ thought process, we can change our association. Next time, we should consider what that individual may know that we don’t or the unique perspectives a person brings to the table. Even better, let’s associate disabled individuals with competitive integrated employment, affordable and accessible housing efforts, and continuing education. Most importantly, let’s see everyone as a human being living a choice driven life filled with joy, heartache, love, friendship – and all the things in between.

No simple solution here…but the work continues.