Human bias

2 minute read

Last week, I visited Vienna, Austria. The city, with its accommodating public transport, pedestrian-friendly streets, and excellent wine, seemed to embrace inclusivity. However, an encounter at the Prater amusement park underscored that physical accessibility doesn’t always eliminate barriers; human bias can present its own unique challenges.
One Wednesday evening, we found ourselves with a few spare hours. To entertain my 9-year-old daughter, we decided to visit the Prater amusement park. After enjoying several rides, we approached an intimidating indoor roller coaster. Here’s the conversation that ensued:

  • Ride operator: You cannot go in!
  • Me: Why? (puzzled)
  • Ride operator: You are blind (having noticed my white cane).
  • Me: So?
  • Ride operator: It is dark inside. You will not be able to find your way.

I was momentarily speechless. Where should I even begin to address this?

Arguing did not do any good anyway, and we could not budge him from his firm belief in my inability to ride that ride.

I was thinking that you can put in all the accessibility technology and infrastructure in a place but how do you resolve the inaccessibility caused by “human bias”?

If you are an eternal optimist like me, you would also think this was maybe the case of a one off “ignorant a**hole”. So, we walk up to the next ride that was open to broad daylight.

  • ride operator: You cannot go in!
  • me: why? (already knowing the answer this time)
  • ride operator: You are blind.
  • me: So?
  • ride operator: This ride is 30 meters tall.
  • me: So?
  • Ride operator: What if the ride gets stuck when you are up there and you black out. How will I get you down?
  • me: How will you get down any of these other people if they black out with a stuck ride? How will you get my 9-year old daughter down when you are willing to let her go on the ride?
  • ride operator: I don’t care, I cannot let you in. You can get your money back from the window.

I think, in his head, this man thought that a blind person is someone who has “blacked out” permanently.

I was surprised but not too much. I see this “human bias” everywhere. This infantilizing someone with a disability. The attempt to protect them from themselves. The thinking that you can know better than this person with a disability about what they should and should not be doing.

It pervades everything in society, including work, where people with disabilities are not considered “able” to do more complex or harder more senior roles. The question arises: how can we eliminate this bias and perceive individuals with disabilities as more capable? How can we prevent people from being “inspired” when they witness someone with a disability performing ordinary tasks independently?

I’ve observed some of this bias diminish over time among my colleagues, suggesting that increased exposure to individuals with disabilities could alleviate this issue.

  • Incorporating education about disabilities, especially in higher education courses, can increase awareness.
  • Media representation could also play a role.
  • Prioritizing the hiring of individuals with disabilities can help provide this exposure .
  • Implementing workplace training programs, particularly for public-facing roles like customer service representatives, can foster understanding.

I will continue to expand this list with additional strategies as they come to mind.