Unconscious bias concerning people with disabilities

Posted by Policyhubadmin on 1 June 2015
by Policyhubadmin


Over the last few decades’ new research from the fields of neuroscience and social psychology has shed light onto the working of the human brain and the concept of unconscious bias. Unconscious biases are simply our unintentional people preferences, which are created and maintained by thewayourbrainswork,tosortdataquicklyand are influencedbyourupbringing,themedia and ourlifeexperiences.

The Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (enei) have worked with employers for some time to understand and mitigate against the impact of unconscious bias in the workplace and in doing so spotted a worrying trend: Unconscious bias against disabled people appeared to be higher than any other social group.


The Key Issues:

Some 20% of the UK population has some form of disability:

  • Some disabilities are caused by genetic factors, e.g. lack of sight, speech, hearing, dyslexia, autism.
  • Some disabilities are invisible, including various forms of mental health.
  • However, the majority of disabilities are acquired as a result of ageing or accident.

IT can play a major role in alleviating the effects of disability and allow independent living by enabling

  • The blind and vision impaired to see
  • The deaf and hard of hearing to listen
  • The mute to speak
  • The physically disabled to control their environment
  • Those with cognitive impairments to understand better

For evidence, ask Professor Stephen Hawking, and his reply will be mediated from his smart wheelchair through a computer system.

In a world of ‘digital by default’ knowledge of disability and the beneficial influence of IT should be part of the background knowledge of all IT professionals.

Unfortunately the unconscious bias concerning people with disability is stronger than that measured for gender and ethnic diversity. A recent survey, by The Employers’ Network for Equality and Inclusion, showed that:

  • 34.1% of those surveyed had a bias in favour of non disabled people over disabled people.
  • 16% of those surveyed had a bias in favour of white people over black people.
  • 2.6% of those surveyed had a bias in favour of men over women.

The same survey shows that 67% of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to people with disability and 36% believe disabled people are not as productive as everybody else



The Employers’ Network for Equality and Inclusion recommends that managers setting up an Unconscious Bias programme to include disability should include the following key action points:

  • Measure the levels of unconscious bias of recruiters and key decision makers to raise awareness of bias.
  • Encourage recruiters to put forward more candidates with disabilities to break down stereotypes and build more role models.
  • Review positive action programmes and the process for agreeing reasonable adjustments.
  • Review the impact of disability initiatives such as ‘two ticks’ and the ‘Disability Confident Campaign’ to ensure they are producing long term and lasting effects on the experiences of disabled people
  • Use positive disabled role models to show the positive effect disabled people can have at work. Focus on their achievements at work and not on their disability
  • Encourage honest discussions about disability in the workplace.
  • Identify strengths of people with disabilities and play to them.
  • Train line managers about different types of disabilities and how to talk to someone about their disability, giving them the confidence to have effective communication with different types of people.


Download the full report here.

11 Responses

by David Rippon

Excellent - a much needed statement that will complement the similar statements on gender and ethnicity used in the unconscious bias workshops

by Nigel Williamson

We would need to take care in such a subject. As we now have been enlightened to the potential human capability to recognise and categorise, we should also not allow the subject matter to control the conditions of fareness.

by Matthew Gillman

It is important to bear in mind that being disabled does not just apply to those in wheelchairs or with other physical disabilities. We must remember that there are many people who have hidden disabilities. Some of these are physical, but actually there are many people who physically are able-bodied but struggle with mental illness. Many such mental health sufferers are classed as disabled, and a mental illness can have a devastating impact on behaviour, appearance and hence employability. There is a lot of prejudice aginst such people. Unfortunately the report and BCS's position shown above do not appear to recognise this.

by Peter Abrahams

Matthew, I am replying as one of the authors of this paper.
I appreciate your concerns and we can add extra bullet points to both lists.
Given the briefness of the paper and the structure we have used could you suggest suitable words in each list?
As a member of the Digital Accessibility SG (DASG) I understand the issue of cognitive impairments and some of the ways IT can support them. I am less clear what kind of accommodations would benefit people with mental illnesses.
Maybe you would like to contact and/or join the DASG so your concerns and expertise can be added to our group.

by Ricci Downard

Well done; an excellent article.
One line I can't quite accept: "IT can play a major role in alleviating the effects of disability and allow independent living by enabling
• The blind and vision impaired to see"
... well no not really.

One really shocking stmt I didn't know: "67% of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to people with disability".

& in the light of that, you've made one recommendation that seems v important : "•Measure the levels of unconscious bias of recruiters and key decision makers to raise awareness of bias.

by Matthew Gillman

In response to Peter Abrahams.

Dear Peter, I am sorry for not replying sooner. I only just saw your comment.

I think for me a key line is "Unconscious bias against disabled people appeared to be higher than any other social group." In particular, mental illness continues to have a stigma that physical disabilities do not. Society is generally becoming more open about mental illness but there is still a lot of ignorance. And of course it is often a "hidden" disability (like some physical ones) - i.e. not obvious such as being in a wheelchair.

Employers (and co-workers) should be encouraged not to discriminate against people with mental health disabilities.

A key point is the assessment and interview process. People with mental health disabilities can sometimes come across a bit differently. it is hard to generalise as there are of course so many different forms of it. Sufferers must decide whether to declare their disability to the assessors or not. This is difficult. If they do, then there will probably be some bias against them; if they don't, they may be seen to exhibit strange behaviour which is unexplained.

Medication can affect sufferers, e.g. make them very tired or seem a bit spaced out.

Sufferers may well need regular time off for appointments with mental health professionals for assessments, counselling, etc. Employers may resent this. Indeed, if a sufferer discloses this need during the interview process he or she is likely to be discriminated against. There is also the issue that sufferers sometimes have relapses; a potential employer will bear this in mind when choosing to offer a position or not.

Although there are of course mental health difficulties in young people, sometimes this is something which develops later in one's life. This, coupled with the ageism which is so prevalent in our industry (youngsters always seem to be preferred over experience), can make it hard for such older sufferers to gain employment.

Someone may suffer from something like OCD which (by definition) makes them obsess over things. Behaviour can be "unusual", but ironically such people may obsess over their code etc. and thus do a really good job - if they are given the chance.

I'm not sure exactly how IT can play a role in helping people with mental illness, although you could argue that sufferers may be helped by being given a job which requires them to interact more with a computer and less with people. I suspect this is a generalisation and would vary across disabilities depending on their nature.

For the recommendations, I would suggest including an awareness that people can have hidden disabilities (both mental and physical). I would also suggest urging employers to accept the fact that people with mental health issues are not "weird" and generally not "dangerous", and can be valuable members of the team. A third suggestion would be to have appropriate structures in place at work so sufferers have someone to talk to if things are getting too much for them, and appropriate action taken as a result - e.g. being moved to a quieter location, perhaps being given less work to do, time off for appointments, maybe some home working, etc.

On a separate note, the report rightly points out issues such as autism - e.g. Asperger's. Such people may be fantastic at doing a computer-related job but perhaps come across at interviews and in dealings with co-workers as "different" - perhaps not very sensitive/aware of how to interact with others. (I know some people in this group so can talk with experience).

I hope this helps!


by David Tomlinson

I volunteer with IT Can Help which is an AbilityNet service. All the people I deal with have a problem with something which is IT based. Many websites are very difficult to use if you can't use a mouse. The commonest solution is to use the Tab key which should take you to all the fields and controls. On some websites the tab order has been changed from the default and skips some controls and/or fields. On many websites it is very difficult to see where you are and where the next tab takes you.

Some software which is designed to help has faults which are simply caused by the designer not thinking about the disabled user. The Windows Magnifier can be docked and if you dock it on the right of the screen it is easy, when trying to move it, to reduce its width to a few pixels. As it is designed for people with vision problems that renders it invisible.

No one would create the problems I have described deliberately, but they have unconsciously applied the abilities of a 'normal' user in their thinking about the user interface and forgotten that we are all disabled at some stage in our lives.

by Noel McMullen

I agree with the overall tenor of the previous comments. Nobody would create the approach to disability seen every day in aspects of normal life and increasingly, this accidental hostility is seen in software products.

A policy statement alng thses lines is overdue for adoption for adoption by BCS. I commend this version and hope to see it adopted soon.

by Peter Abrahams

Regarding '...blind can see..'; I hope you do not mind the poetic licence. I believe blind people do say 'I see'. Similarly deaf and hear.

by Jenny Hargrave-...

I am pleased to find such an excellent report on the problems of unconscious biased and disability including in the workplace.

I do agree with Ricci that the paragraph saying that 'IT can play a major role in alleviating the effects of disability and allow independent living by enabling

The blind and vision impaired to see
The deaf and hard of hearing to listen
The mute to speak
The physically disabled to control their environment
Those with cognitive impairments to understand better.' is somewhat misleading.

While specialist technology is providing tools to help those with disabilities, as far as I am aware it cannot as yet always provide a medical solution to a disability. In addition, the technology comes with both cost and training implications. I particularly liked the line in the report to 'Encourage honest discussions about disability in the workplace.' I believe we need a realistic approach to the technology combined with training of managers in order to move things forward.

by Mark Evely

re Those with cognitive impairments to understand better.' is somewhat misleading.

I agree.

As a dyslexic, and using the total membership figures there should be 7500 others dyslexics in the BCS. I feel as a group we get ignored partly because we do not speak out.

Dyslexia has been described as a hidden disability thought to affect around 10% of the population, 4% severely, plus it is the most common SpLDs and does not affect intelligence

The Equality Act 2010 uses the word disabilities, as does this paper. I do not consider I have a disability, I do have a Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs).

The term disability is a loaded term and can suggest an extreme condition. Such as the emphasis in the text, eg "allow independent living" plus the list of very obvious physical disabilities. Someone with a physically disability will need to navigate and interact with their environment but 'control' is that really the best word?

I do wish a more accurate language / terminology / vocabulary could be used when discussing these topics. It is so easy for people to misunderstand the issues.

Personally I do not use any extra technology, what I do crave is good clean design and well written materiel presented effectively. It is very rare I find a website which accomplishes this.

Post Comment

Only registered users of this site can post comments.
Please sign in here