5 ways to effectively acknowledge and accommodate employees with disabilities

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Rudi van Blerk, partner and Africa people and organisation practice lead at Boston Consulting Group, says embracing the needs of disabled employees results in a more productive workforce.

Employers that acknowledge and accommodate talented and industrious employees with disabilities will find it pays off handsomely. Not only does it make a wider pool of talent available for recruitment, it also supports employee productivity and retention.

According to an International Labour Organization (ILO) report: An inclusive digital economy for people with disabilities, the technological revolution that was accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic has created new jobs, made certain occupations obsolete, and changed traditional jobs and recruitment processes. Digital tools enable people with disabilities (PwD) to access employment through online recruitment platforms and can support them in their daily tasks at work.

Here are ILO’s five top recommendations for employers:

  • Review talent acquisition programmes to target PwD to fill digital gaps;
  • Ensure general training is available to all employees;
  • Use digital tools to adapt workplaces and ensure that digital platforms, tools and processes are accessible;
  • Make sure that people with disabilities can learn the skills they need to work in those jobs; and
  • Include people with disabilities in the decision-making process regarding the digital world of work.

Special assistive technologies can help PwD to work and build a career on an equal footing to their colleagues. But if PwD do not possess the necessary skills, or digital tools are inaccessible or unaffordable, they are at risk of being left behind.

The ILO also notes that PwD in developing countries are at a greater disadvantage than those in developed countries.

Hiding disability

There’s a significant gap between employers’ tally of the number of their employees with disabilities and the actual number. According to a survey by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) across 16 countries and various industries, 25 percent of employees said they had a disability. In South Africa, the figure was 24 percent. But on average across the world, employers report only 4-7 percent of employees are PwD. That means that employers are potentially ignoring the needs of almost a quarter of their workforce.

In South Africa, 46 percent of PwD who had not disclosed their disability said it was because they feared discrimination and bias, and 54 percent of PwD who had disclosed it said they had personally experienced discrimination. PwDs generally also report lower levels of inclusion than other groups that are the focus of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts: women, the LGBTQ+ community and historically-disadvantaged individuals. If employers are not fully aware of PwD’s difficulties, it is impossible to put appropriate policies in place.

Tackling the problem

It is recommended that employers foster a greater sense of inclusion by putting in place employee-centric policies and programmes, mentorships, and by providing reasonable accommodations. At organisations that possess these tools, employees feel safer about disclosing their disability.

Some of the policies that assist PwD are beneficial to all employees, such as the ability to work from home part of the time and access to wellness services. If flexible or hybrid working arrangements are available to all employees, it de-stigmatises those arrangements for PwD and frees them of the necessity to produce medical certificates to justify them.

The ILO gives examples of new technological developments that can assist PwD in the workplace. For example, AI is learning how to respond to images, sounds and facial expressions. Tools like auto-captioning with AI and autonomous cars present great opportunities for PwD.

In conclusion, PwD who do not disclose their disability are significantly less likely to have their request for accommodation met, which is further evidence of the importance of providing an environment where disability can be disclosed without prejudice.

No employer can afford to ignore or misunderstand about a quarter of employees. It is possible to take practical steps to get high-impact results, resulting in a happier, more productive and more loyal workforce.

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