Disability and Bias: There is No Simple Solution


I have been talking about bias training with a few folk. The conversation was not disability focused; but was related to the wider diversity theme. Anti-bias training is not as useful as we’d like to think. 

U.S. corporations spend $8 billion annually on diversity training. Yet a meta- review of almost a thousand studies finds a “dearth of evidence” about their efficacy. As Bohnet concludes in the title to the book’s second chapter “De- biasing minds is hard,” attempting to raise awareness about the possibility of bias can be ineffective, or even counter-effective. (from Gender Equity by Design – see Resources at the end of the essay)

We are inherently biased – including about how biased/unbiased we think we are. Bias is a natural and good thing in many circumstances. Indeed, it can be essential to maintain good relationships in our private lives. Try not being biased toward your spouse or children. Nepotism is considered a duty, outside the public sector, or a public company.

In the NSW public sector, bias in how staff engage with other staff, job applicants, service users and community members is unacceptable if the consequences of a decision, or action, advantages, or disadvantages, others in an unfair manner. 

A public servant has a duty to treat all members of their public equally – hence taming our natural disposition toward bias for or against individuals or groups is an obligation.

Misdiagnosing the Problem

Bias is not the problem. Misapplication of it is. Back in the 1980s the buzz word was discrimination – and it became a bad word. We see this still in the term ‘antidiscrimination’. But to discriminate simply means to recognise a difference. It used to be a good thing to be recognised as somebody who is “very discriminating”.

As ideas and ideals become popular, they are also condensed and simplified, and given a simple moral valency. Thus, discrimination became wholly bad. You can see this by checking the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of ‘discriminate’. The primary definition is “make an unjust or prejudicial distinction…”. The second definition is the neutral one – “recognize a distinction; differentiate:”

Bias has a similar fate. The primary definition is “inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair:” The morally neutral definitions followed.

Discrimination and bias are natural human attributes that are hardwired into us. We can’t, and should not try to, remove them. What we must do is become aware of them; and apply them appropriately.

Conscious suppression of unconscious stereotypes, researchers have found, simply doesn’t work. (from Gender Equity by Design)

In the context of public service, this means meeting a high standard of self-awareness and self-control. This is not going to be achieved by attending short courses. The best such courses can do is make us aware of the challenge we face – to be alert to our inappropriate tendencies to be biased. How we might act to address that risk is not well, or usefully, described. That is a far more complex matter.

Diversity is the Best Answer

Humans are not, generally speaking, a self-aware mob. There are endless instances of psychological experiments that demonstrate this. I like the moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt’s, description of our conscious self being the small rider on a large elephant of consciousness. Learning to be diligent about our inclinations toward bias on our own is not easy. Nor is it necessarily wise. Alone, we will fall afoul of our innate confirmation bias – and believe that we are way less biased than we really are.

There are compelling arguments about the value of diversity in teams. Put simply, multiple people coming from different perspectives may all bring their biases to bear on a challenge – as well as their insights and ability to call out others’ biases. Being aware of other people’s biases will help us be more aware of our own – and in a diverse group they may cancel each other’s out.

In the public sector there is always the opportunity to involve other people who are very different in a decision-making or problem-solving process. Equally, you can select people who are like you, or who are unwilling to do anything other than agree with you. That choice is always available – but why would you do that? It’s a question you must ask, and answer, of yourself. 

Electing similarity or diversity is where one succeeds or fails in meeting the fairness obligation. This isn’t diversity training. It is embedding diversity in practice as a deliberate choice.

The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash.” (HBR’s Why Diversity Programs Fail)

Disability Awareness and Bias Training

Disability Awareness training does not appear to have been subjected to the same level of scrutiny as Bias training, which is a pity. I want to distinguish between awareness of specific disabilities and awareness of people with disability as a general class.

I strongly support awareness training for specific disabilities. For example, if there is a deaf or blind team member, understanding the work environment from their perspective is essential to ensure their full inclusion. Similarly, awareness of the realities of ‘Mental Illness’ should be mandatory for all staff, but especially those in leadership roles. I single out leaders because they have a duty, as a leader, to model and promote desired standards of conduct. This is best exemplified in the NSW Capability Framework – see personal attribute Act with Integrity – especially the behavioural indicators for Advanced and Highly Advanced.

For other kinds of disability, where awareness of individual needs is appropriate, ‘training’ is the wrong term. Creating a safe environment for a team member to be open about a need for an accommodation or an adjustment is the best option.

And this is where the issue of bias comes in. In any work team there will be a range of people with needs for accommodations or adjustments at times – caring, parenting, religious, cultural, or illness necessities. Disability is just one of things in that spectrum of human experiences that make us a diverse lot. But in relation to disability, in some cases the need for an adjustment or accommodation is continuous and ongoing.

Disability Awareness training includes an element of anti-bias training in an effort to eliminate bias against people with disability – because they are people with disability. But a poor understanding of a disability might be the primary problem. No doubt bias may play a role, but ignorance may be the greater problem. Ignorance can lead to discomfort and exclusion through lack of confidence.

Bias against a person with disability may not be the only issue. Bias toward a person with attributes that are responded to positively – appearance, gender, ethnicity, age – can be an added disadvantage for a person with disability. Bias toward them (negative) must be added to bias away from them (positive toward others). This is no simple matter to address.

This is one reason why positively promoting diversity is a better antidote against bias than attempts at Anti-Bias training – and growing self-awareness in decision-makers is even more important.

Making the Job Needlessly Harder

There is no doubt that all this training is well-intentioned. But running ‘awareness’ training for every member of the ‘diversity’ community is not only impractical, it may even be counter-productive by imposing a significant burden on individuals and teams – more stuff to learn and remember. This is especially so when such training is made mandatory, and there is no immediate need for it – in relation to any work-related situation. 

Trainers tell us that people often respond to compulsory courses with anger and resistance—and many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups afterward.” (From HBR’s Why Diversity Programs Fail)

Developing awareness training seems like a rational response to an identified need. But the real need is different. The obligation upon public sector employees is not to be biased in their engagement with staff and community members in a way that unfairly advantages or disadvantages them. This means that that each employee must self-manage their own propensity for bias. Any organisation can support their staff in only 4 ways:

  • Supporting and encouraging increased self-awareness by creating opportunities to grow; and facilitating access to tools to help.
  • Requiring flexibility and compassion in responding to needs of staff seeking adjustments and accommodations.
  • Requiring a bias toward diversity in decision-making and problem-solving situations.
  • Creating and maintaining a culture of accountability to ensure compliance with requirements for staff to be unbiased, fair, and just in dealing with staff and community members.

These are the areas that require attention and investment.


The good intent of public sector training is beyond dispute; but misdiagnosing the problem and the challenge as one to be addressed through rational cognitive input, rather than increased self-awareness, misses the focal issue.

Public service requires a very different set of responses than private life. We are hardwired to discriminate in favour of our own (at a family, clan, or tribal level) and against others. We are hardwired to over-estimate the virtues of ourselves and those like us, and to under-estimate the virtues of those who are not like us.

Over the past 70 odd years our Australian culture has evolved into a complex pluralistic one with a far higher mixture of ‘diversity characteristics’ than previously – and that is ongoing.

The ideal of treating everyone in our community equally is a stretch challenge not everyone who is a member of the public sector will conform to without exception or consistently. It is a work in progress that must be undertaken with insight, realism, and commitment.

Achieving enduring Disability Inclusion means understanding this and working to ensure the wider Inclusion and Diversity aspiration is realised. 

Training is not a ‘silver bullet’. Cultural change and encouraging greater personal responsibility to develop enhanced self-awareness is slow; but may be the only really effective path. Training is of value in quite specific ways only.

Bias is more of a problem for people in positions to make decisions that impact a lot of other people. Managers are in this position for obvious reasons. But this does not mean they are more responsible than their staff – who, by virtue of being public servants, potentially impact many people as well. 

However, leaders do have a higher duty to model desired behaviour. This suggests that supporting leaders to increase awareness of the risks of innate bias makes more sense than anti-bias training that supposes it some form of crime for which people should be blamed.

Research supports avoiding training styles that imply blame or fault, or which seek to eradicate behaviours that are hardwired. We are left with stimulating self-awareness to promote choice-making that is inclusive within an accountable ethical framework. We must admit this is difficult – stretching individuals to match the ideals of public service.


Below are some resources that may be useful:

CBC Ideas Podcasts

B is for Bias was broadcast on 07.09.2021 if you are looking for it on a podcast app, or you can go to the podcast on the CBC website

The Bias List was broadcast on 03.02.2022 if you are looking for it on a podcast app, or you can go to the podcast on the CBC website

HBR Articles – downloadable PDFs – individual access may vary

Why Diversity Programs Fail – from July-August 2016

Diversity as a Strategy – September 2004

Diversity Council Australia

BIAS Unconscious Bias: Unplugged – a downloadable PDF

Wharton – U Penn

 Gender Equity by Design – a review of What Works by Iris Bohnet

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