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Inclusive development – clearing up misconceptions on disability in the workplace

Daniel Orelowitz, Managing Director, Training Force


The national disability prevalence rate is 7,5% in South Africa, and yet despite this, having a disability is not readily accepted as a normal part of workplace culture. While legislative protection in the workplace for persons with disabilities (PWD) is a good starting point, actually putting the principles of employment equity into play isn’t clear cut. It requires management and people without disabilities to be less fearful of and more open-minded about disabilities in the workplace to establish a more inclusive culture that values the contribution of each individual, rather than highlighting their differences. Inclusivity does not require that everyone be treated the same, instead it means that we must expand our scope of what we consider typical while extending workplace support to make working conditions as equitable as possible. To achieve this, it is necessary to dispel misconceptions about the commitment and the capacity levels of persons with disabilities.


Identifying and addressing barriers for PWD


A disability can take many forms. Whether physical or mental, noticeable, or ‘invisible’, equity acknowledges that people are different, while narrowing the impact of differences in the workplace in sensitive and practical ways that enable persons with disabilities to integrate effectively and deliver value to the organisation they work for. Stemming from the traditional medical definition of disability, there exists a misplaced emphasis on an individual’s condition and the limitations they may present. As times have changed, there has been a noticeable shift toward a more open-minded social definition which suggests that barriers and limitations for PWD exist because of the ways in which our workplaces and societies are structured, rather than as a result of the individual’s disability. Significant barriers to accessibility in the workplace for PWD are usually attitudinal, organisational, architectural, technological and include a lack of adequate information and communication. Many barriers experienced by PWD result from the misperceptions of those around them, and unless these are sensitively dispelled, the result will be ongoing discrimination and exclusion.


Legislative framework for inclusion


The concept of “reasonable accommodation” is meant to allow for modifications or adjustments to a job or working environment to overcome such barriers so that an individual can perform in their role despite their disability. In South Africa, reasonable accommodation is ensured through the Employment Equity Act No. 55 of 1998. The concept of reasonable accommodation, as defined in the Employment Equity Act, is aimed at providing an unbiased mechanism through which to explore the possibilities within a business in a manner that minimises barriers and draws attention to the skills and value of individuals.


Although reasonable accommodation is legally mandated, most workplaces are still inaccessible for PWD because people fail to understand the extent and methods of handling reasonable accommodation within the workplace. Many employers mistakenly assume that reasonable accommodation will come at a great expense, when in fact many accessibility measures can be implemented easily and at minimal cost. Skills development is one of the most effective tools available to empower an individual by becoming economically active. Investing in on-going education and training opportunities is essential to close the skills gap and grow the economy. Creating a culture of lifelong learning is essential to facilitate and enhance suitability for employment, while promoting personal development and social inclusion in the workplace.


Creating the right opportunities


Interestingly, the Employment Equity Code of Good Practice on Employment of Persons with Disabilities, South African organisations are mandated to spend 0.3% of their wage bill on skills development for disabled employees as part of their BBBEE Spend on their scorecard. Specific use of the word ‘employees’ and not merely ‘individuals’ indicates that skills development must occur as part of employment. While the government has provided the necessary legal framework to include PWD in the workplace, it remains for employers to address the stigma attached to employing PWD. While certain disabilities might exclude individuals from working in certain jobs, purely from a practical perspective (for example, someone in a wheelchair isn’t necessarily suited to working at heights), businesses need to realise that disabilities do not prevent people from excelling in other roles if given the right opportunity and the right skills development training.


Facilitating real change


Here, training providers can play a pivotal role in connecting PWDs with employers in a manner that addresses stigmas attached to disability. Through learnership programmes, PWDs can gain qualifications and skills in a manner that overcomes traditional barriers by taking into consideration their unique skills and talents. Training providers can assist businesses in becoming accessible and welcoming to PWDs – from sensitivity training to mentorship programs that help PWDs with on-boarding and integration into the workplace. Learners can then gain practical experience in their chosen fields at companies that are geared toward helping them achieve their potential.


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