Unfortunately, people with disabilities often have it rough at work – over a third of people with chronic illnesses or disabilities face discrimination in the workplace. Even worse, the tech industry is big culprit of this, writes Rachel Thomas, a director of the USF Center for Applied Data Ethics and co-founder of Fast AI, whose personal experience with this was published in The Next Web.
According to Thomas, who frequently tweets about her own struggles with chronic health issues, other workers in the tech industry have shared their stories of bias with her. Many of them report feeling that the industry won’t take them seriously, or that they will be discriminated against: “Will people think that I’m less capable? Will my manager be less likely to give me important and high impact assignments? Will this change the lens through which people view my achievements or productivity?”
In some instances, these fears are well founded, Thomas says; in one example, workers at Amazon received low performance reviews after returning from major surgeries and recovering from cancer. There are also more general examples of how the tech industry isn’t inclusive of those with disabilities, including having its workers put in “ridiculously long hours,” which is tough for disabled employees who may need adequate rest, inadequate HR resources, and even unintentionally creating a resentful atmosphere at work when a coworker goes on medical leave.
Making a Difference
Even though the tech industry is tough with disabled workers, the culture can change, Thomas says. For example, increasing awareness and empathy towards those with disabilities in the workplace can help. Decision makers and coworkers can do this by realizing that people’s health and chronic conditions often fluctuate, and may even seem “invisible.” “It is common to feel ok at some times but ill at others (and this can vary from week to week, or even throughout a given day),” Thomas writes, reflecting on her own experience. “People are complex and multi-faceted, and you can’t assess their health based on appearance or mood.”
Decision makers and coworkers can also assist those with disabilities by trusting each other – meaning, trusting that those who struggle with an illness or physical impairment know how they’re feeling, and by simply listening to those who are struggling. Finally, encouraging an open dialogue and avoiding assumptions will also alter the workplace in a good way. Coworkers shouldn’t view medical leave as a “vacation,” or offer unwanted health advice; bosses should consider adjusting the workload of someone who is chronically ill to help them succeed at their job.
If these tactics are applied, and the lines of communication are open, there’s a chance that people with disabilities could one day thrive in tech jobs, and the tech industry could become more inclusive as a whole.