Shedding light on disability in the workplace

As a Business Development Consultant for Progression, Melanie Bothma interacts with many clients across a range of industries. An all too often occurrence however is the existence of common misconceptions, prejudices and stigmas that she sees on a daily basis.

Melanie discusses some of the most common of these with Progression’s Disability Expert, Justene Smith. Justene gives us insight into alternative ways of thinking in order to promote transformation and social change.

I know what a person with a disability can and can’t do

Melanie: I recently had a client who declined a very good learner for a learnership position. When I asked why they declined him, I was told it was because he had one arm and it was assumed then that he wouldn’t be able to type or complete admin tasks. How can I assist my clients to stay away from assuming what people can or can’t do, based on their disability?

Justene: This is a very common assumption when discussing disability in the workplace. People do not think they live with stigmas, but when asked about people with certain types of disabilities doing certain jobs, they often have preconceived ideas as to whether that person could or couldn’t do a job. The assumption mainly comes from the fact that many people without disabilities see themselves as complete or whole and that they are able to perform their job because of this. This often leads to people then assuming that if they had a disability, it would mean that they were not whole and therefore not able to do their job.
Often our societal upbringings and value systems teach us to pity people that have less than us. More specifically, we are taught to feel sorry for people with disabilities because they are perceived to be “less” than us. This value system equates to a belief that people with disabilities “can’t do”.

The lesson here is for us to challenge that belief within ourselves and be careful of assuming that a person with a disability “can’t do” a job or a function. It is always best to first understand what the person can do i.e. what their abilities are.

We don’t have a wheelchair ramp, so we can’t have people with disabilities here

Melanie: Often when meeting clients for the first time and initially discussing placing people with disabilities in their space, a common response is, “We can’t really have people with disabilities here as we don’t have a ramp”. How do I help my clients to understand that disability is more than just physical?

Justene: We are not educated in South Africa to understand the full definition of disability and all too often, we assume that it pertains to physical disabilities only. The Employment Equity Act definition states that a disability could be either physical or mental in nature and this is broken down further to include learning, emotional and intellectual mental disabilities as well as sensory, congenital or acquired physical disabilities. As a result, the definition of disability includes a broad range of conditions, all of which could limit a person, either physically or attitudinally, within the working environment.

The best way to overcome this lack of knowledge is through education, awareness and sensitisation about disability. Corporates should be partnering with disability experts to train staff on the topic of disability and furthermore, our HR Practitioners, Employment Equity Forums and Transformation Champions should be capacity-built to drive this kind of thinking via culture change initiatives.

A Hollywood view of disability
Melanie: My clients are often shocked to hear that our candidates with disabilities do not have any kind of support services, which they assumed all people with disabilities had access to, thanks to what they see and hear from overseas. What should clients understand about the South African reality of living with a disability?

Justene: I lived and worked in the UK for many years and in that country, public services of all kinds are fully accessible. For example as a person using a wheelchair for mobility, you are provided with an accessible home, you are able to leave your home along an accessible pavement and hop onto an accessible bus. You are also able to enter a bank or shopping centre without barriers because all public areas are accessible. You might even have a personal assistant from the store you are visiting to assist you with whatever you need.

In South Africa the reality is quite different. Statistics tell us that 10% of our population is living with a disability. Of the population, approximately 65% of people live in low income homes or in poverty. So, putting the two statistics together, we can assume that many people with disabilities come from low income households. If this person is a learner or candidate looking for employment, the hurdles they have to overcome include simply getting ready in the morning, negotiating inaccessible streets for long distances to access public transport, waiting until an accessible mode of transport is available, exiting and again travelling along more inaccessible pavements and then accessing often times inaccessible buildings, all just to get to the interview on time and impress a prospective employer.

As companies, we should celebrate the dynamic nature of people with disabilities in our country and recognise the huge adversities that many overcome just to arrive at work on time. People with disabilities are incredibly adaptable and therefore our assumptions about “can or can’t do” are again challenged. Corporates should also look at using disability experts to conduct environmental accessibility assessments of their sites in order to identify which barriers could be changed or updated to prevent exclusion.

Disability is only applicable when discussing B-BBEE
Melanie: Achieving B-BBEE points is a common and understandable driver for my clients. However, sometimes achieving a target is the only driver and long term integration or retention strategies for people with disabilities are not considered. How do I get my clients to see disability in a much bigger context?

Justene: Employing and empowering people with disabilities can be about more than the scorecard. It can be about embracing our social responsibility as citizens to effect true change. At Progression, effecting social change is not only about contributing money to fix a problem or implementing a one year learnership to gain skills development recognition. It’s about creating a strategy around skills development, personal development and skills retention that can assist people with disabilities to get out of that cycle of poverty and into a meaningful career.

What job would suit which disability?
Melanie: Again, going back to preconceptions and assumptions, many clients ask me which kinds of disabilities I think would suit a certain role. What is the best way of discussing this?
Justene: The simple answer is that every job is suitable for a person with a disability. What needs to be determined of course is whether the environment allows access for people with disabilities and if not, what barriers then exist? Furthermore, does the culture of your company recognise and promote skills and dispel preconceptions to allow someone with a disability to work there unaffected? Those are the two most important starting points when addressing job suitability and two factors which can be assessed by disability experts via environmental accessibility audits and disability awareness training.

Disability vs Health and Safety
Melanie: I get told often that a client, especially in the manufacturing and warehousing sectors, can’t take on people with disabilities from a Health and Safety point of view. How do we address this and what can be done to overcome this assumption?
Justene: The Employment Equity Act allows for fair discrimination. Basically this means that a company should be looking at two factors; the risks of a role should be established first; then the particular person’s Reasonable Accommodation needs should be assessed. Should a Risk Analysis determine that the risks of the job cannot be negated through the implementation of reasonable accommodation, then it is fair to say that the person cannot perform the role. However if, through reasonable accommodation implementation, the risks of the job are negated, then the person should be considered for the job. A practical example of this was when a client explained that they cannot accommodate people with hearing impairments because they wouldn’t be able to hear the evacuation siren if it went off. The simple solution however was to install a red light that would flash when the siren was activated, so that a person with a hearing impairment would be able to see it and know that an evacuation was needed.

In closing
In all of the above scenarios, it comes down to an understanding of the Employment Equity Act and its Code of Good Practice, but more so a deeper willingness to participate in social change and spearhead that change within your company in a practical manner.

For more insights visit Progression

By Imogen Rossam

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