Written by: Elisha Vermani
Riddle me this: If a person with spinal injury, who uses a wheelchair, can’t enter an office building because it doesn’t have a ramp, are they kept from working because of their injury or by the inaccessibility of the office building? If the building had a ramp, they would be able to get to work like everyone else and be a productive member of that company and society.
Neither their disability nor their wheelchair is the problem. The inaccessibility of the workspace is.
Persons with disabilities (PwD) account for 2.21% of the country’s population (the real number is expected to be much higher) but make up for less than 0.5% of employees working in the private sector. This, despite a study conducted by Accenture in 2019 illustrating that companies focusing on disability inclusion and engagement reported four times more profit and three times more sales than their counterparts.
So what could possibly be the reason for this abysmally low absorption of capable and hard-working individuals with disability in the mainstream workforce?
The lack of inclusivity can be attributed to misconceptions surrounding the hiring of PwDs and the various social, attitudinal and infrastructural barriers they face. While there has been a noticeable rise in initiatives undertaken by various corporations to make the workplace more inclusive, this advancement has evidently been slow and limited in its impact.
Potential loss of productivity associated with hiring someone with a disability is a common myth prevalent amidst the able-bodied population in the workforce.
When Lemon Tree Hotels’ founder, Patu Kewsani, gave his executive team a target to hire 100 hundred hearing and speech impaired workers over 4 years, he was faced with serious resistance by his employees.
“They felt these guys would not do their jobs and the additional load would come on the rest of them,” he told the Financial Times. However, after persistent efforts to clarify what the new roles would entail and how none of it would derail the existing work dynamic, Keswani was able to move ahead.
Today Lemon Tree Hotels Limited is the largest hotel chain in India in the mid-price segment, with 82 hotels that employ approximately 550 persons with disabilities, accounting for 11–12% of its workforce.
Several employers also feel that hiring PwDs requires substantial extra investment and effort. On the contrary, almost 60% of the people with a disability do not need any major infrastructural support for their day-to-day activities, and most of the challenges related to travel or communication can be resolved through cost-effective practical solutions, according to a study conducted by Boston Consulting Group in alliance with Youth4Jobs for the Indian job market.
In addition to these myths, employers may also be reluctant to accommodate individuals with a disability on the following fronts:
However, it is imperative to understand that most of these can be tackled with increased awareness and sensitisation about the needs and capabilities of people with disabilities, provided one has the intent to do so.
One of the simplest ways to accommodate an employee with a disability is by letting them have the option to work from home. Seems pretty intuitive after a year into the pandemic, right? However, before Covid-19 disrupted our lives, remote work was largely frowned upon and viewed as a less efficient channel of work.
This perception changed almost overnight last year as companies worldwide scrambled to adapt to the new mode of working — one that PwDs had been requesting for ages but to no avail.
As social distancing norms and restricted public movement continue to propel new avenues with respect to remote and hybrid employment models, the argument for diversifying the workforce has only strengthened.
That said, there’s also a catch: “What about those persons with disabilities who possess the necessary skill for a job but do not have adequate training to cope with work from home yet?” asks Dr B R Alamelu, an assistant professor at Indraprastha College for Women, who has been taking classes online since last year with the help of assistive technologies.
The pandemic has posed new barriers to the hiring of PwDs in addition to the ones that already existed. Since on-the-job training is on hold and in-person interaction that would ordinarily facilitate this process isn’t feasible, how employers plan to bridge this gap is crucial to ensuring a steady absorption of PwDs who have the necessary skills and are willing to work.
On what’s keeping companies from hiring persons with disabilities, Tony Kurian, a PhD candidate at IIT Bombay, said: “Most organisations do not hire us because there is no belief in our abilities and things are not accessible. At the same time, most people don’t treat us with dignity and as equal because we are usually perceived as help seekers and not as equal contributors.”
He further added: “The real need is for the companies to have a serious, reasonable accommodation policy.”
Reasonable accommodation policies cover various aspects ranging from work-from-home to availing facilities at the workplace, access to assistive devices, restructuring job roles and flexible work schedules, among other accommodative steps. It also includes structural adjustments that are required to integrate workers with disabilities in a workspace that is predominantly designed by and for non-disabled people.
These adjustments are meant to be in line with principles of universal design with the aim of incorporating design elements that everyone can access irrespective of their individual capabilities.
Some of the changes to boost accessibility may include but are not limited to:
Furthermore, these minimal infrastructural corrections need to be coupled with large scale and comprehensive sensitisation efforts for the non-disabled working population to provide a truly conducive environment to PwDs.
While the disclosure of one’s disability at the workplace should be devoid of any stigma or bias on the part of the employer, there is a pressing need to shift the narrative in conversations surrounding disability by reducing the emphasis on a person’s impairment and instead focusing on how external barriers can be remedied.
After all, impairments only become disabling when external conditions prevent an individual from reaching their full potential.
A robust work culture that truly empowers employees with disabilities and provides them access to adequate training and technological setup is necessary to get used to in a new work environment. But these requirements shouldn’t discourage employers who may feel that they do not have everything in place to cater to PwD applicants.
Infrastructural development and reasonable accommodation can be a chicken and egg problem, but a better approach is to start with essentials, hire PwDs and work with them to facilitate the implementation of appropriate support systems quickly. This also helps one avoid falling prey to a one size fits all approach towards disability inclusion.
The Indian private sector is yet to cover massive ground in terms of inclusivity. While structural remedies need to be the norm, an equal emphasis must be placed on not just stopping there but extending their practices to ensure that employees with disability can continue to prosper and move forward in the organisation.
This decidedly calls for a shift in approach to view persons with disabilities as a viable, talented and untapped workforce that is fully capable of being financially independent and contributing to the country’s economy as well.
About the author: Elisha is a Multi-Media and Mass Communication student at Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University. When not writing, you’ll find her complaining about the news or deconstructing poorly made spy films just for laughs.