Disability Inclusion in the Workplace

Inkblot Therapist Katherine Ridolfo discusses the misconceptions about individuals with disabilities and shares tips for creating inclusive workplaces.

While there are many “isms”—sexism, racism, ageism, etc. — there’s one form of discrimination and that rarely gets discussed: ableism.

Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. It can show up in various forms and settings, including micro-aggressions, stereotyping, or discriminatory recruiting practices at work. Unfortunately, much of this discrimination goes unaddressed largely due to a general lack of education and understanding. 

Experiences of discrimination and oppression have negative impacts on mental health. According to the CDC, adults with disabilities report experiencing frequent mental distress almost 5 times as often as adults without disabilities. In order to support the mental well-being of peers with disabilities, companies can take steps towards creating a safe and accessible workplace.  

We spoke to Registered Social Worker and Inkblot Therapist Katherine Ridolfo – who specializes in working with clients with disabilities – on the misconceptions about individuals with disabilities, the types of discrimination they face, and how workplaces can be more inclusive. 

Misconceptions About Disabilities and Ableism in the Workplace 

There are many misconceptions about those with disabilities that can perpetuate ableism in the workplace. One of the most common misconceptions, says Ridolfo, is that all disabilities are visible. 

“People assume disabilities are always visible and that you can easily know when someone has one, but that is absolutely not true,” she says. For instance, a person in a wheelchair may be easily identified as having a physical disability whereas the challenges someone with a diagnosis of mental illness or a learning disability may face may go unseen. This lack of awareness can create barriers to accessibility when non-visible disabilities are not addressed or accommodated. 

Another big misconception that leads to discrimination in the workplace is that the work of individuals with disabilities is less valuable. 

“Starting right from recruitment, even though an individual may be qualified, they may be passed up for a job because of their disability,” Ridolfo says. But the challenges don’t just stop at recruiting. “Disparities in salary are also common, particularly with people who have a developmental disability. Even though they are doing the same, meaningful work, they get a much smaller income.” In Canada, persons identified with milder disabilities earn 12% less than those without and those with severe disabilities earn 51% less.  

This discrimination extends to promotion possibilities as well: “[Promotion decisions are] often based on assumptions of what people can and cannot do; and as a result, the work of those with disabilities may be less valued,” she says. 

With a third of our lives spent at work – in roles that can shape our social lives, our sense of self and our economic possibilities – it’s critical that we all feel safe and supported at our jobs. If you’re an employee or employer looking to create a more healthy, inclusive workplace for your peers with disabilities, here’s a few steps you can take.

1. Adapt to Accessibility Legislations. The Accessible Canada Act and Americans with Disabilities Act are federal laws that seek to remove barriers of accessibility and develop legislation that ensures greater inclusion of individuals with disabilities. Ridolfo says that “these are the frameworks employers can use to start implementing more accessible practices into their workplaces.” 

2. Education. Ridolfo mentions that education and understanding of disabilities are essential to create a more inclusive and supportive workplace. “There must be buy-in from leadership, which will ultimately filter down into the operations of a business,” she says. Do your part to learn about different types of disabilities and the unique challenges that these individuals may face.

3. Provision of Accommodations. According to Ridolfo, inaccessibility is another way in which workplaces can be discriminatory. To combat this, employers must incorporate alternative adjustments for those who require things like extra breaks or exclusively remote work. She mentions that “these accommodations need to be tailored almost individually wherever possible.” 

Ridolfo also introduces the idea of ‘universal utopian spaces’ where everybody has equal access to all functions and activities of the workspace regardless of their abilities. “For some, this may mean things like accessible bathrooms and elevators” she says. “For others, a ‘universal utopian space’ may include additional technological support, assisted devices, or interpretation services (like ASL) if needed.”

4. Use of Inclusive Language. “We really have to make an effort to use the right terminology,” Ridolfo says. “We don’t always have the right answers and we won’t always know.” She encourages us to ask what our peer’s personal preferences are and to include them in conversations on how to foster more inclusive work environments. 

Ridolfo also encourages staff to use ‘People First Language’, which emphasizes the individuality of people with disabilities rather than defining them primarily by their disability. This includes language such as ‘a person with depression’ or ‘a person with a disability’ rather than ‘the mentally disordered’ or ‘the handicapped’. Language is insidious and shapes the way people think: It is therefore important to use the correct terminology and stay educated to stop the perpetuation of ableism in the workplace.

5. Equal Recognition. Recognizing the contributions of all employees regardless of abilities is essential for creating an inclusive workplace. “A lot of the time, the work of individuals with disabilities is seen as less valuable than others. Employees may not be seen as equal, [for example] where the possibility of career acceleration is different,” Ridolfo says. “It is crucial to make things accessible overall. For example, if there was a competition of some sorts, employers should make it inclusive so that everyone can be a part of it.” 

Looking to speak with a professional counsellor about your mental health? Inkblot therapists are here to support you. Reach out to our qualified therapists for an appointment today.


Katherine Ridolfo

Katherine Ridolfo is a registered social worker and therapist based in Mississauga, Ontario. She works with individuals (16+), couples and families and has extensive experience working with individuals dealing with anxiety, depression, trauma/PTSD, relationship issues, fears, phobias, grief, sadness, anger, guilt, addiction issues and disturbing memories. She provides pre-marital counselling, discernment counselling, hypnotherapy and sex therapy. One of Ridolfo’s specializations is in working with individuals who have developmental disabilities as well as with their families/caregivers to help navigate life stages throughout the lifespan. Referral Code: HbO35l4V