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Creating Friendly Workplaces For Differently-Abled Key To Increase Their Participation In Workforce

The need to welcome talent from among the differently-abled population is at the center of the inclusivity debate

Photo Credit : Shutterstock


The concept of workplace inclusivity is arguably one of the most notable HR ideas of this decade. Globally, organizations are making extensive efforts to nurture workplaces that not only represent the true composition of society but also respect and cherish different identities. In western economies where labor migration over several decades has altered the demographic composition, organizations are putting efforts to make workplaces sensitive and welcoming to people of different races and ethnicities. 

Gender inclusivity is another important focus of human resource managers. Similarly, the need to welcome talent from among the differently-abled population is also at the center of the inclusivity debate. The national broadcasters in the United Kingdom including BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky have recently committed to double the number of disabled people involved in television by 2020 to make the industry "more inclusive". Some multinational companies have already made significant strides in ensuring equal opportunities and an inclusive work environment for the differently abled. For example, global retail giant Carrefour Group which has over 10,000 stores in over 30 countries employed more than 9,000 people with disability by 2013, making them 2.8 percent of its global workforce. 

When it comes to special people, inclusion doesn’t imply only hiring more people from the category. It also entails creating physical infrastructure, sensitive policies and a sensitized workforce. 

Differently-Abled People in India

The Census of 2011 put the population of the disabled in India at 2.68 crores or 2.21 percent of the total population. In urban areas, only 15 percent of the disabled people were graduates while the corresponding figure in rural areas was only 5 percent. The 2011 Census also concluded that around 36 percent of the people with disabilities were in some form of employment in India, leaving a majority of them out of work. According to the International Disability Rights Monitor, ‘Regional Report of Asia’, 2005, 74 percent of persons with physical disabilities and 94 percent of persons with mental retardation are unemployed in India. Correspondingly, approximately 83.9 percent of persons with disabilities were employed in 2003 in China.

In 2016, the government replaced the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995 with more potent legislation that increased the number of disabilities from seven to 21 and increased the quota of reservation for persons with disabilities from 3 percent to 4 percent in government jobs and 3 percent to 5 percent in higher education institutions. While these measures look good on paper, they have to be supported by adequate efforts to ensure that people with disabilities get an enabling social environment. The private sector must also devise new strategies to hire and nurture more people with disabilities. This is not just a way to exercise our social responsibility but also ensure that we do not lose out vital talent just because he/she is physically different. Intellect and talent are not exclusive to any category of individuals. Come to think of it, our understanding of space and time would not have been the same if not for Stephen Hawking.

Lack of Self-Drive

In Germany, businesses are required by law to fill at least 5 percent of their workforce with disabled people. Organizations who fail to fulfill this quota must instead pay an equalization levy to the government. While the government stipulates a quota for public sector jobs in India, there is no law governing their employment in the private sector. 

Unlike several western countries where organizations have been working sensitively to not just increase the proportion of disabled people in their workforce but also to cater to their special needs at workplaces, the corporate sector in India still lacks the self-drive and responsibility needed for the same. Barring a few start-ups that have gained attention for being attractive workplaces for special people, there is by and large disregard and ignorance. A lot of organizations also practice what is called an ‘unconscious bias’. There is also a kind of inertia when dealing with this issue since dedicated efforts to improve the presence and participation of differently abled people in the workforce requires investment in time and energy as well as in finances. 

Setting Targets

Rather than wait for candidates from among people with disabilities to apply and meet your criteria, it is important to make efforts to reach out to them while creating an environment that accepts them as normal employees. It is important for the organizational leadership to push the idea of diversity and inclusion by setting clear and achievable targets. Once you have set yourself a target of say having 1 percent of your workforce comprising people with disabilities, you can set about finding ways on how to make it happen. Partnering Universities, educational institutions, as well as NGOs working in the field, will allow you access to candidates with disabilities. At the same time, it is also needed to create dedicated programs for training these candidates and tracking their progress.

Organizations which make special efforts to hire and nurture PwD often report higher rates of retention, dedication, and loyalty from these candidates. Many organizations have also found that by employing persons with disabilities they have been better able to serve their customers with disabilities. At Sunlife, we conduct a program that sponsors the education of deaf and dumb children and also provides them with vocational training. A very satisfying outcome of this program has been the fact that almost 90 percent of these candidates find livelihoods and also retain their jobs in the long run. 

Assistive Technology and Infrastructure

At SunLife Financial, we recently conducted an audit to understand what all can be done to make our workplace completely inclusive for the disabled workforce. We have incorporated those findings and are currently working to implement them. These inputs include ensuring that the entire office space can easily be traversed on a wheelchair; door knobs, reading signs and washrooms are accessible from the wheelchair; there are dedicated desks and lockers that can easily be accessed by persons with disabilities; even the lighting has to be adjusted to make it amenable for differently abled persons.

Making changes to the physical infrastructure of the organization is a very important aspect of making your workplace friendly to all people. Like all of us, persons with disabilities want a dignified and productive life and a workplace that treats them with respect and allows them to be self-sufficient. Spending on systems and facilities for persons with disabilities is an investment for everyone as diverse work groups develop better solutions to challenges.

Sensitizing the Workforce

Much like the physical infrastructure, the mental conditioning of the workforce at large must also be changed to make it more sensitive and appreciative towards their differently-abled colleagues. Training programs on diversity and inclusion must educate employees to readily accept a wide variety of differences – be it physical, gender-based, economic or of background. Promoting tolerance also flows from top to bottom. When the leadership walks the talk, changes trickle down much more easily. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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differently abled workforce workplace human resource

Rajeev Bhardwaj

The author is the Vice- President, HR of Sun Life Financial Asia Service Center.

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