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  • Writer's pictureMeg O'Connell

Disabled Employees Bullied, Harassed and Demeaned at Work

A white man in a suit and tie. He has a beard and is making a face like he is crying as his fingers form the letter L on his forehead calling someone a loser.
No One Wants this Manager

A few weeks ago, we shared the unfortunate story of a smart, vibrant, and passionate Administrator, Antoinette “Bonnie” Candia-Bailey at Lincoln University who had reported abuse from her direct supervisor, the university president. She had depression and anxiety, and she was struggling. Unfortunately, her reports of abuse went unaddressed, and she died by suicide. Now the university is conducting an investigation, and the president of the college is on paid leave.  You can read the full story here.

This tragic story made me want to know more about workplace bullying and/or harassment of people with disabilities and just how common it might be.  So, we surveyed our community to learn more about what employees with disabilities experience at work. I have worked in disability inclusion for more than two decades, so, I wish I could say I was surprised by the results.

77% of people said they had experienced being bullied, harassed or demeaned at work because of their disability or the way they learn or communicate.  58% said it happens all the time, and 19% said it has happened once.  24% of respondents said they had not been bullied with 10% saying they thought people were just rude and not bullies, and 14% saying they had not been bullied at work.

Workplace bullying is a serious issue that affects many employees and can have negative consequences for their well-being, performance, their confidence, career and impact their overall health. So, what is workplace bullying? Workplace bullying is defined as a persistent pattern of mistreatment from others at work that causes either physical or emotional harm. It can include verbal, nonverbal, psychological, intellectual, and physical abuse, as well as being ignored or humiliated.

People with disabilities are more vulnerable to workplace bullying than their non-disabled peers. According to a study by Cardiff and Plymouth universities, employees with physical and mental disabilities or long-term illness are twice as likely to be physically attacked at work1. They may also face discrimination, harassment, exclusion, mockery, or gaslighting based on their disability status or needs.

Bullying of people with disabilities at work is not only unethical and illegal, but also detrimental to the organization. It can lead to lower productivity, higher turnover, increased absenteeism, reduced morale, and increase legal costs. Therefore, it is in the best interest of employers and employees to prevent and address workplace bullying of people with disabilities.

Here are three strategies that can help create a safe and respectful work environment for people with disabilities:

1. Develop and communicate a clear anti-bullying policy

The first step to prevent workplace bullying is to establish a clear policy that defines what constitutes bullying, how to report it, and what are the consequences for the perpetrators. Many companies are adopting a zero-tolerance policy to workplace bullying, meaning if you are involved in any workplace bullying, you will be terminated, no second chances. The policy should also include specific provisions for protecting people with disabilities from bullying and discrimination and ensuring reasonable accommodations and accessibility for their needs. The policy should be communicated to all employees and managers and reviewed and updated regularly.

2. Adopt a see something, say something culture

The second strategy is to foster an environment that empowers employees and coworkers to report incidents. Many bullies will bully publicly as they feel it gives them power. This can mean belittling someone in a team meeting or talking to other employees about the individual with a disability or making jokes about someone’s disability. Often employees are afraid of backlash to stand up to leaders who bully or harass team members. It is important to create a culture that will listen to employees at all levels and ensure there is a safe place for their voices to be heard.

3. Provide support and resources for victims and bystanders

The third strategy is to provide adequate support and resources for the victims and bystanders of workplace bullying. Victims of bullying may experience emotional distress, physical injury, or mental health issues, and may need counseling, medical care, or legal assistance. Bystanders may also feel stressed, guilty, or fearful, and may need guidance on how to intervene or report bullying. Therefore, it is essential to offer confidential and accessible channels for seeking help, such as employee assistance programs, hotlines, or mentors. It is also critical to follow up with the victims and bystanders, and to ensure that their concerns are addressed and resolved.

As companies move to create more disability inclusive workplaces it is important to recognize and address any and all bullying complaints. When bullying goes unaddressed, it can have tragic consequences for the individual, for teams, and for the organization as a whole.

In the comments section of our poll many people shared their stories of being bullied, telling us they were stressed, that the bullying made them question their self-worth, and in a few cases that individuals were having or had suicidal thoughts. Please know this, NO job, or manager, or coworker is worth losing you. You have the right to work in a place that treats you with dignity and respect.


If you or someone you know is struggling, please talk to someone. And if you feel you can't talk to a family member or a friend, please call or text 988 to talk to someone, or you can chat with someone at The 988 line is completely confidential and is available 24/7/365.


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