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When Does Unconscious Bias Become Discrimination?

CMP Resolution Blog by Lesley Allport and Katherine Graham.

Nobody likes to be told they are biased – usually. Most of us would like to think that we are fair and open-minded, willing to explore the unknown – to a degree, accepting of other people’s differences. At least that’s what I used to think. As an openly gay man I may perhaps have sometimes felt that a certain person’s behaviour towards me was different to how they behaved to a heterosexual man but that was fine; I could cope with that. And then I became disabled. And all that changed.

My disability is an invisible one. I don’t wear a badge so unless I told you, you wouldn’t know. And so often, when I have told someone I can sense a shift in their perception of me. They are entering into the realm of (for them) the unknown. And that’s a scary place. A place that nobody really likes to go. And when we are exposed to something scary, something unknown, something uncomfortable, that’s when our unconscious biases come into place. We all have them, we couldn’t exist without them – the flight or fight syndrome does it have its uses at times after all! But sometimes it may just backfire. And sometimes it can become discrimination.

Like the time when I declared my new disability to my employer. They very kindly completed the application form for early retirement on medical grounds on my behalf(‘just sign on the dotted line’). I didn’t sign. Was I being discriminated against? I went to the Union. They agreed it was indeed discrimination.

Or the time that I was threatened with performance improvement procedures due to my disability (‘this is for your benefit’). Or the time that I was asked to not tell colleagues about my disability (‘it’s for your own good. You don’t know how they will react’). I told them. They were fine. Were those examples of discrimination?

Or the time that my specialist wrote to the OH consultant that ‘Roland would never be normal again’ (‘I’m doing this for you’). Yay! Who wants to be normal? Normal is a setting on the tumble dryer. Whilst undoubtedly an example of benevolent bias, could this also be construed as discrimination?

As Michael J Cohen wrote in his book Reconnecting with Nature: Finding Wellness Through Rebuilding Your Bond with the Earth

“Labels bias our perceptions, thinking, and behaviour. A label or story can either separate us from, or connect us to (others). For our health and happiness, we must critically evaluate our labels and stories by their effects.” 

Being aware of your natural unconscious biases is a good first step on the journey to full connectivity. And that’s the place we all want to be.

So when I meet you, when I tell you that I have disability, how will you behave? Will you be aware of the impact your response has on me? Will you be able to moderate your behaviour? Do you really want to? Will you be treading on the toes of discrimination?


Roland Chesters

Roland Chesters is the founder and Chief Executive of Luminate. A recognised Disability and Inclusion expert, with a passion for people, helping them to achieve success and overcome the challenges they face. A consultant, trainer, coach, mediator and speaker, combining his corporate expertise with his own personal experience, supporting organisations… MORE >

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