Is there a bias against disability in your Unconscious Bias training?

Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC
6 min readApr 14, 2019

Disabilities are largely ignored in most unconscious bias training. Here’s why that is important and how to fix it.

Blurry picture of 4 individuals wearing business clothes and a pair of eyeglasses

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, if you live in the US you have probably at least heard the term “unconscious bias” and perhaps even taken unconscious bias training. Unconscious bias (also sometimes referred to as “implicit bias”) is a term used to categorize social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness.

Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing them. When a situation is fuzzy or lacks structure, humans default to stereotypes. Additional, we tend to run away from people and things that make us uncomfortable. When we do that without thinking about it, and without even thinking about whether or not we should be thinking about it, that is unconscious bias.

Unconscious Bias Training

Courses on unconscious bias are a standard introductory form of diversity training. “See, we care, we have unconscious bias training” shout people in HR and D&I from the rooftops. But most companies run #Diversish D&I programs. Being #Diversish is defined as running diversity & inclusion programs that don’t include disabilities as an equal component to LGBTQ, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, and other “protected status” categories. In #Diversish programs, disability either doesn’t factor into unconscious bias training at all at all, or if it does, isn’t done particularly effectively or sometimes even respectfully.

In an article titled “Why Diversity Programs Fail”, Harvard Business Review said that employees can be easily taught to respond correctly to a bias questionnaire, but that the correct answers are soon forgotten. Lasting positive effects rarely last more than a day or two, and backlash can actually result in the form of creating explicit biases where there were none before the training.

How should unconscious bias training incorporate disability?

Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC

LinkedIn Top Voice for Social Impact 2022. UX Collective Author of the Year 2020. Disability Inclusion SME. Sr Staff Accessibility Architect @ VMware.