Local woman shares experiences navigating workforce in wheelchair, helps others understand ‘ableism’

KING COUNTY, Wash. — When it comes to making progress in equity, people with disabilities say that it seems they’re barely part of the equation.

One local woman shared her experiences of trying to navigate the workforce in a wheelchair and what she calls society’s “ableism” problem.

At Northwest Center in Renton, something “radical” is happening.

“The folks here are really ready to do something pretty transformative,” Nora Genster told KIRO 7′s Deedee Sun.

The work being performed is tackling a difficult conversation and changing how people think.

“First important to note I’m a disabled woman, I’ve been disabled for my whole life. I was with a disability that affects mobility and general muscle strength,” Genster said.

Part of the work she is doing is getting people to understand “ableism.”

Sun asked: “For people who’ve never even heard of this term, how would you define it?”

Genster responded: “I think an analogy is a good place to start.”

She parallels ableism to racism.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is described as “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.”

“What is tricky about ableism is it’s not always overt. It’s not always really obvious. But it is deeply, deeply ingrained to how we assess the value of a person, and how we assess the value of ourselves,” Genster said.

While Genster said she has experienced it and lived it, she said: “I didn’t know what the word “ableism” was until I was 22 years old. Which is pretty shocking.”

In one example, she describes how she was not given the space to perform her role, when she was hired at another job to help make a government organization more diverse.

She described the experience as “having an employer who is very excited to have a disabled employee that they can parade around, and the experience of being tokenized certainly.”

She has often found a building’s physical infrastructure literally holds her back.

“I’ve spent hours of my life worrying, fretting, trying to coordinate using the bathroom in an office. That’s kind of unforgivable, truly,” she said.

Genster explained that the hours that disabled employees spend trying to navigate inaccessible systems — when they could be doing their actual job — means a loss of productivity and also impacts mental health.

“So it was working really hard, working really long, working really intense hours,” Genster said.

She said that ableism can actually become internalized.

“What’s wrong with me, why am I wrong, why can’t I succeed? And that’s really painful, really, really hard.”

Now, Genster and Northwest Center are working to bring the conversation to employers.

She said she wants “to empower them to become anti-ableist workplaces.”

Genster said they are finding businesses are becoming curious.

“It becomes clear to employers how much talent and time we’re losing out on. If we want to put it in dollars, cents, you’re losing revenue — because people are not able to do their best work,” she said.

They’re helping employers hire people with disabilities and put the proper accommodations in place.

She said it is “not an HR initiative, not a hiring initiative. Not a tokenizing effort, but really a transformation of your workplace for the better.”

She said one challenge is sometimes people don’t like to think about disability.

“They are uncomfortable. And I believe that much of this discomfort stems from the fact they are scared they may become this person one day,” Genster said.

Deedee asked if “people don’t like the idea they have implicit biases.”

Genster responded: “No! No, and I think that’s been a really interesting part of this work, is figuring out how to have a conversation — without accusing someone.”

Genster believes that’s partly why few explicitly talk about ableism.

“I think it seems scary, it seems too hard,” Genster said.

However, she is working daily to change that.

“The folks here are really ready to do something, pretty transformative. And that’s pretty thrilling to be a part of,” she said.