Earlier this year, on a Tuesday in February, I left work as per usual and took the back exit to walk to the bus stop.
I pressed play on one of my favourite podcasts, and sat down for the ride home.
A few minutes later I was physically assaulted by a person I had never seen before who had been sitting in a row behind me. I hadn't even seen them as I boarded.
It took a few minutes for the bus to be able to stop safely, and I spent a further 10 minutes cornered under the bus shelter before help arrived and the perpetrator was removed from the area.
This experience had a huge impact on me, and would go on to impact my access to transportation, my sense of self, and my career.
It wasn't just my personal boundaries that were breached that day — the sanctity and safety of the bus I took to and from work each day was corrupted, and with it, my confidence in using public transport to connect with the world.
I was diagnosed with epilepsy about the age of four. I am now 23, and I've continued to experience seizures from time to time in my young adulthood, meaning that it isn't safe for me to drive a car.
As an avid public transport enthusiast, this had never been a problem — until this experience.
My disability means I rely on public transport to access work, study, essential services and social engagements that are beyond walking distance. This made it a challenge to communicate to my employer at the time how much this event had affected me.
While my then-workplace was supportive of me taking a short amount of leave and working from home where possible for some time, my leave-taking and non-physical presence, together with the gravity of the loss of autonomy I had experienced, began to impact my performance.
About two months later, I left this role.
The power of compassion cannot be understated
Compassion and understanding are vital skills for those working with disabled colleagues or colleagues with pre-existing conditions, because our lives and daily decision-making can look very different to a person without that lived experience.
As a Grattan Institute report recently found, more than 40 per cent of Australians have a disability or chronic illness – so chances are you're either like me, or you'll be working with someone like me!
Sometimes, a lack of sensitivity towards disabled people can manifest into what's known as 'unconscious bias'.
And, while you might have seen this phrase used as a label for a compulsory (and kind of annoying!) training module set by HR, it has real implications for people like me with a disability, as well as those who come from other marginalised groups.
Earlier in my working life, I worked in hospitality during my university studies. I was lucky enough to land a job in a very competitive cafe as a supervising barista, and I was really excited for all the training and development opportunities I would have in this role. I couldn't wait to fill out my paperwork!
However, in the course of putting my documentation together, I had to disclose that I didn't have a car. When my supervisor asked me why, and I told him that I didn't have a license due to a disability, my job offer was revoked.
Why, you might wonder, as a barista, would I need to have a licence and a car? Perhaps I might find myself completely alone in a cafe that could seat 60 people with no one else who could drive?
Even if there was an obscure reason that required me to be able to drive, why was this not declared on the job advertisement or in the position description or explained to me?
Learning that I had a disability, the supervisor may have wondered how my job performance might be affected and decided that I was too much trouble to bring on.
But had he asked me, I could have told him that I am very reliably self-managed; that I get a good amount of warning before an episode (in case he didn't like the optics of me seizing in front of a customer); and that the worst that could happen would be me calling in sick once every few months if I had an episode right before a shift.
When unconscious bias leads to burnout
In 2016, after I moved out of home in Perth to study in Canberra, I was coming to grips with managing my epilepsy by myself, without my very supportive and capable parents being physically present.
There was a lot of trial and error here – finding new specialists in a city with long wait times and little availability, and the stress of university, made this transition a bit bumpy. I was also diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome soon after moving, and the chronic joint pain that accompanies a connective tissue disorder I have had since birth returned.
Nevertheless, in my second year of university I began working full-time to advance my new-found passion for a career in communications. Any university student will know that managing full-time work and a full course load is a tall order, but a chronic health condition in that mix means you need to learn to tread very carefully to make sure nothing slips.
It was during this time that I discovered that unconscious bias can take a less obvious, but perhaps more sinister, form.
Sleep deprivation and exhaustion are known triggers for epilepsy, which I have become better at managing over time. But sometimes a seizure occurs suddenly and knocks me out from work for a day or two, and the same occurs with my migraines and chronic pain.
When these kinds of flare-ups happen to anyone with a chronic condition, supervisors can be hesitant to believe there is a real medical reason for taking some time off. This is usually because they just don't understand the nature of some disabilities — they might have some stereotypes in their head, or might just feel awkward asking or probing.
Whatever the reason, unconscious bias is often at play, and when I observe these attitudes from management, I become reluctant to take leave when I need it in case I am denied future opportunities or seen as less committed.
But by not taking leave I put my health at further risk, which can lead to burnout, poor performance — and most troublingly, might reinforce damaging stereotypes about the abilities of disabled people in the workforce.
As someone who is young, disabled, and open about being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community in my workplace, there is a lot to overcome to ensure that my achievements and performance are seen on an equal standing to my peers, and that I am appropriately supported to reach these goals.
To me, a management culture that does not address unconscious bias marks an unsafe workplace for people with disabilities, despite any access and inclusion virtues they might be signalling.
To achieve the lofty objectives set out in strategic plans around the country concerning diversity and inclusion, it is absolutely imperative that everyone, especially those in supervisory or management roles, put in the requisite practise towards developing compassion and understanding towards people with disabilities.
Tune in to webinars featuring panels of people with different lived experience to you. Read books, take courses. Google things you don't understand. There are so many resources around to help you address unconscious bias.
Whilst not everyone with a disability will feel comfortable talking about their personal experiences, and it cannot be the responsibility of marginalised communities alone to solve problems of workplace unconscious bias, it is important to find ways that make people feel safe to share their lived experience so that it can inform policy, procedure, and cultural change.
Unconscious bias can look different in different industries, and for different people. But it is always damaging, and always something that we should be looking to challenge, and eliminate.
The ABC is partnering with International Day of People with Disability in a campaign to celebrate the contributions and achievements of the 4.4 million Australians with disability.