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Why Companies Must Revisit Their Hiring Policies For Persons With Disabilities

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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.

Representative Image.

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.

What Employers Say

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.

World Spinal Injury Day
Representative Image. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

In addition to these myths, employers may also be reluctant to accommodate individuals with a disability on the following fronts:

  • Communication challenges between PwD employees and their non-disabled colleagues.
  • Lack of assistive devices and technologies.
  • Developing training modules and structural changes required to fully integrate workers with disabilities in the workspace, etc.

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.

Let’s Talk About WFH

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.

Reasonable Accommodation

Person with disability at work
Representative Image.

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:

  • Replacing round doorknobs with lever handles to aid those with limited use of hands.
  • Replacing stairs and elevated platforms with low ramps for workers with locomotor disabilities.
  • In lifts in multi-story buildings, including tactile readable buttons and tactile paths for people with visual disabilities.
  • Equipping office equipment with screen readers, etc.

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.

Shifting Perspective

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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