The soft discrimination of low expectations


I am guilty of this. A former colleague with a disability recently chaired a major meeting and the report that came to me was that he did a very impressive job. 

I was delighted. But on later reflection I was forced to confess to myself that I had never imagined him doing that role. Then I realised that I didn’t know enough about my former colleague to have formed an opinion based on knowledge. I had simply allowed a sly and sneaky prejudice to impose a prejudice upon my judgement. 

The prevalence of low expectations

When I came back to work after an 18-month absence after recovering from GBS I had no idea what I could do, but was determined to find out. My manager decided she knew and helped me out by doing things she thought should be done – without telling me. 

The thought wasn’t appreciated. What appeared to be consideration for my limitations at the time was a presumption without consultation. On one project this ‘assistance’ ruined a tracking system I had set up to ensure the security of over 130 tender responses. It took several days to get things back under control – with the aid of a temp worker who had been engaged with no assessment of my need. As it happened, I did need her to help me fix the wrecked tracking system, but not much else – other than carrying boxes of responses. 

Just ask

Anxiety about how a staff member with disability will perform is understandable. But converting anxiety into intervention without confirming that there is even a problem makes the issue more about the anxious manager than the person who should be the focus of concern. 

It’s simple just to ask whether and how a disability might impinge upon the performance of a task. That said, it’s not an easy thing to do if you haven’t established an empathic relationship with the staff member. 

There may be support needs, but they also may have nothing to do with the disability. The disability may trigger only a need for an adjustment or an accommodation to ensure accessibility. 

The risk of low expectations

I think we can all be guilty of low expectations – but that isn’t the problem. It’s more that we remain unaware of them and that we modify our relationship with a colleague with disability accordingly. 

The worst case scenario is that we create a distance between us and them. We assume but say nothing. They sense our distance and assume they are not liked, respected, or well-regarded and keep their distance. 

It’s a standoff in which neither party is aware of how the other feels. The consequent relationship is cool. This matters because relationships in a team are ideally warm – mutually respectful and professionally and personally empathic. Sometimes there is more warmth between a manager and team members who have things in common on a personal level. This can magnify the sense of coolness for anyone who is already in the outer zone of inclusion. 

Low expectations lead to isolation

Probably the most persistent issue I dealt with as DEN chair was the sense of isolation and ‘othering’ that came from the imposition of presumptions upon the colleague with disability. This included a persistent presumption of inability or unwillingness to be compliant with what were thought to be ‘reasonable’ expectations. 

A vision impaired colleague discovered their manager had directed team members not to help, so they could learn to be more independent. In early 2020 I arranged a consultation between staff with sensory disabilities and IT staff. There were 5 blind colleagues who came. Two had dogs and the others relied on white canes. All came by themselves. I am not sure how much more independence would be expected. This manager was unable to distinguish between can’t and won’t.

A colleague with a visible mobility disability was, despite their substantial experience, overlooked for a wide variety of opportunities that were offered to less experienced team members. The disability was visually confronting to some.

A colleague with impaired hearing was excluded from roles requiring interaction with others and given relatively simple tasks that could be performed in isolation, despite their significant level of education and ability. This created a negative feedback loop. The colleague with disability lost enthusiasm for the workplace environment and that lack of enthusiasm was interpreted to be evidence of low ability. 

The absurdity and injustice of presumption

A few years ago, I visited an office I used to work in for a meeting. There was a fire drill. Sirens were going off and people were making their way to the fire stairs with the usual level of enthusiasm. 

I don’t do fire stairs, so I sat patiently waiting for a fire warden to arrive. I had my Canadian crutches leaning on the wall beside me. A woman approached me and told me very slowly that I shouldn’t be alarmed. There was no real fire. It was just a practice in case there was a real one. She then asked where she could find my carer. I smiled and thanked her. I then told her I was a Senior Project Officer and I worked for the department. Very red faced! She quickly left. 

Tales of presumptions of cognitive impairment on the evidence of a physical disability are common. 

But even more common is the assumption of cognitive impairment when a person discloses a ‘mental illness’. The term itself is partly to blame, but the larger problem is the lack of understanding of what it means. We can try to sugar-coat the message by renaming it – a psycho-social disability for example. But the knife of discrimination born of ignorance still cuts deep. 

I can’t think of a more widespread and persistent blight of low expectations than those imposed upon colleagues who let it be known they are living with a psychological injury. It may be depression or anxiety (the 2 most common) but they do not lead to cognitive disability or conduct disorders. 

The hard discrimination of low expectations

Many of us live with psychological injuries that will never trigger a need for us to get a clinical diagnosis. As well as living with the aftermaths of traumatic experiences we go through rough times in our lives when we struggle to stay focused and motivated. Sometimes we can barely hold things together. 

I saw this just recently when my stepfather unexpectedly died. I have 4 siblings, 2 of whom were his children. We all reacted to his death in different ways. For one sibling it was a particularly strong existential shock and their ability to work was wrecked for a few weeks. 

We understand that ‘normal life’ has many challenges that can be difficult to meet with aplomb. Mercifully most of us have an off switch which triggers after a decent interval. But some live with a broken off switch. They feel bad persistently and they struggle routinely to maintain an even keel. 

We’d never know who they are because there is no visible sign. They may or may not have decided to get clinical help. And if they do, they are unlikely to let us know. 

But the few who do are so often hit with a response that is bewildering and distressing. Their competence, hitherto unchallenged and even lauded, is called into question. 

The ignorance and unreasoned fear of others is projected upon them – and they really are not the ones with a ‘disabling’ problem. The loss of empathy and compassion is a far greater concern.


Low expectations are triggered for a variety of reasons, sometimes justly, but often not. Disability is only one trigger. Racial, gender and religious discrimination can do the same thing.

We humans are constantly judging and assessing others for a variety of reasons – mating, competing, exploiting, friendship, cooperation and so on. 

In the workplace assessing competence is necessary – and it goes both ways. Managers must assess the competence of their team, and team members must assess the competence of their fellow team members and their manager. It goes on all the time. 

It is a fundamental insight into our psychology that we over-estimate our abilities. When we judge another person there is a high chance of being wrong – and having no idea we are. 

It is also an established insight that leadership roles trigger less empathy for people in subordinate positions than for fellow members of the leadership group. 

Colleagues with disability are subject to the blight of low expectations that unjustly impose upon them restrictions on what they can do well and the esteem in which they are regarded. 

This can become a feedback loop that traps them. Not everyone with a disability is aware their performance, status and engagement are impacted by how other people have imagined their ability and capacity.  As it impacts them, the negative experience can trigger responses that become a reinforcement of the low expectations. 

Few managers are aware of their role in initiating and perpetuating this negative feedback loop. Staff with disability who are subject to low expectations and the discrimination that brings may not always react with an articulate and confident response. They may be angry, frustrated or disappointed and show it – inviting further negative feedback. 

When a colleague with disability tries to step out of the low ability mould that has been imposed upon them, their action is not always welcomed. Sometimes it is resisted – and firmly so. 

This recent news about my former colleague reminded me just how easy it is to impose that ‘soft discrimination of low expectations’ and it was an even bigger reminder that none of us are immune from being the one who makes that imposition. That’s not a great thing for a champion of inclusion.

But that’s the reality. Whether you identify as a champion or an ally your normal human responses remain active and in need of periodic self-critical reflection. That’s a hard habit to develop in isolation. We are better off engaging with those we are reflexively likely to impose our low expectations upon. We are better off in a community which accepts the need for, and practices, self-critical reflection as part of process of creating inclusive workplaces. Such a community is created intentionally. It does not evolve independent of intent.

One thought on “The soft discrimination of low expectations

  1. I think I know who you’re referring to. Angelique, Joan and I have been working closely with this person who has chaired DENConnect multiple times, DENGat multiple times and a few other meetings with me. He was really good from the beginning and required way less help from us that we thought too. So guilty also of assumptions. In fact all he really required was for us to believe in him and be his cheer squad in the face of any doubt he was having. He has quite a powerful voice and one that exec leaders are listening too.

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