Interview: Ableism at Work & School

[Image Description: Sophia, representing the National Association of Deafened People, standing with a Member of Parliament, both wearing business attire, at the Houses of Parliament holding a sign that says “Don’t let hearing loss limit you!”] Source: Sophia Kleanthous.

Interview by Ellanora Lerner

Read the first part of the interview here!

    Last week, I shared part of my interview with disabled campaigner Sophia Klenathous (she/her) where she talked about her new online campaign Ableism and Me. I also had the chance to talk to Sophia about how to improve accessibility in workplaces and schools, and advice for disabled people entering the workforce. 

    In her own experience, Sophia shared that her most significant experiences with ableism have been in the hiring process. She described declaring her “disability when I attended an interview or applied for a job, and immediately I get rejected” or even receiving a job, but later having her offer rescinded when she disclosed her disability. She says she’s found "even disability charities and charities that work with health and human rights can be really, really prejudiced when it comes to someone with a disability. They talk about, you know, being inclusive and being a disability confident employer, and often that doesn't actually translate.”

    She feels that ableism is very deep-rooted because “employers’ negative stance on disability means that as soon as they hear someone is disabled, their idea of that person diminishes. And I've spoken to a lot of friends and colleagues who have had the same kind of experiences.”

    To address this, she calls for “more disability awareness training with employers, because a lot of them don't actually know what it means to have reasonable adjustments” for people with disabilities. Employers can also have a better understanding of disability by “just having a conversation with disabled employees.” She encourages employers to provide easy ways for disabled people to speak with someone before applying to a job about accommodations. 

    Other ways that employers can be more disability friendly is by providing flexitime and part time roles since health struggles can prevent people having the energy to take on full time positions or needing flexibility to adjust their work around their health and energy levels. In addition, Sophia emphasized the need to address the lack of accessibility of many websites, which “stops people from being able to even apply to jobs”. She also stresses the importance of providing alternative methods of communication for d/Deaf and hard of hearing employees and considering that certain architectural designs may be new and cool but immediately inaccessible for some.

[Image Description: Sophia, smiling, in a group of people holding red signs that say “I Support UK Aid”] Source Sophia Kleanthous.

    While individual employers have a lot of power to address ableism, there are also issues on a governmental level such as the fact that “right now, as soon as you go part time, you risk losing contributions towards your pension and you also risk your disability benefits. It's a complicated system, and it shouldn't be.”

    Sophia also has advice for young people with disabilities who may be entering the workforce for the first time. She is passionate about sharing what she has learned, such as through a recent blog post, “to give a chance for young people to actually understand the barriers that are there, and the ways that they can go about dealing with them.” Her main advice is "make sure you do your full research into the organization.” She specifically recommends using sites such as Glassdoor, googling with relevant terms such as the company’s name + disability employment, checking for disability confident employers (in the UK), and reaching out to the person hiring directly to have a conversation. She also advises being “very, very protective of your rights, and knowing that you have the right to not disclose, but you can if you want” and to “always ask if their working hours are flexible, because if they aren't, that's often a sign that they're not very accessible.”

    For those who are still students, she also recommends starting early. Her initial work experience was about six months of unpaid volunteering, which she said she “wouldn't recommend.” However, getting experience, through internships or working, is essential, and she recommends “if you're starting at university be really, really ready to look at work experience in your first year.”

    For disabled young people in the UK, she specifically recommends Change 100, a program she’s an ambassador for, that places disabled people in paid internships. 

[Image Description: Sophia in a green shirt holding her UN name tag] Source: Sophia Kleanthous.

    Many of the difficulties that disabled people face in the workforce stem from lack of accessibility in the school system. Addressing ableism in schools, just as in workplaces, requires better awareness of disabilities and the willingness to make accommodations. Sophia says the priority is ensuring “that we have properly trained staff from the level of receptionists all the way to the head teacher, which is something I think we're really thoroughly missing out on at the moment. Friends of mine who are younger, or some of my followers who've got in touch, who are younger, and in school at the moment, have said that some of their biggest barriers are just knowledge around disability and around how to support people with disabilities.”

    This includes ensuring that teachers have an understanding of what language disabled people prefer, Sophia emphasizes “that the word disabled isn't a slur” and she is upset by abled people enforcing other terms such as 'differently abled', and understanding that “because there's so many disabilities, it isn't a one size fits all approach.” Training is crucial but teachers should also “be speaking to the individual student each and every time...and making them aware that they are valued, and that their contribution is valued, and you want to support them as much as possible in their education."

    She also calls for reforms to the grading systems “because a lot of disabled people struggle with exams, and struggle with time pressures and that really rigorous way of learning, but are actually incredibly intelligent. Disabled people have so many skills and experiences that people can really gain from us. But because education is so siloed into these exam based systems, where your academic performance is the only thing that matters, it really pushes disabled people out.”

    While Sophia and other disabled activists have a host of specific recommendations to address ableism, at the end of the day “accessibility should just be something that employers [and educational professionals] think about constantly… it needs to just be ingrained into everything that we do. And if we can do that, we’re partway there.”