How does unintended or unconscious bias affect students with disabilities?

Date Updated

Unintended bias or unconscious bias refers to stereotypes or beliefs that affect our actions in a discriminatory manner. Most bias related to students with disabilities groups is unintentional. Stress, distraction, and other factors can make someone more likely to be biased in a given situation.

Assuming students with disabilities are less able to be successful in their education or careers is a common bias. Examples of situations resulting from such bias include:

  • Assuming that a student with a disability will be unable to complete a lab course or other class activity.
  • Asking a student with a disability to take on a specific role (e.g., notetaker) during group work because of the assumption that it is the only way the student will be able to contribute.
  • Offering unrequested adjustments or support to a student with a disability because of an assumption that they will not perform well in a class.
  • Not engaging a student with a disability in a class discussion in order to avoid calling attention to them.
  • Not providing accessible bathrooms in a science or engineering building.

With effort, unconscious bias can be reduced. Strategies to do so include:

  • Becoming more aware of our own biases and changing our own actions. The Implicit Association Test is one way to become more aware of your own biases.
  • Speaking up when you see actions that imply unintended bias.
  • Modeling equity in your actions.

For more information about unintended bias, watch Recognizing and Addressing Unintended Bias in Engineering Education or Managing Unconscious Bias.