How to do better at including those who are differently abled

LESCO Manufacturing's Jonathan Shapiro on how business leaders can build more inclusive workplaces.

According to Statistics South Africa, the national disability prevalence rate is 7.5 percent, yet employees with disabilities make up only one percent of the workforce.

Many employers are reluctant to take on staff with disabilities, mainly due to misconceptions about the perceived challenges that these employees may pose in their space.

Jonathan Shapiro, whose manufacturing company, LESCO Manufacturing strives to employ disabled and other traditionally unemployable staff in its factory, says this fear is unfounded: “Just because you are ‘differently abled’ does not mean you cannot add value to an organisation. Small modifications in the workspace are often sufficient to accommodate disabled staff and enable them to function fully at work.”

He says companies with the will to create an inclusive workplace need a few things in place.

Committed, passionate  leadership

Leadership plays a critical role in shaping an organisation’s work culture and it starts with the right attitude toward disability and inclusion.

Ensuring the company helps every employee feel welcome, comfortable and accepted has to become part of your DNA. Jonathan says that when they recruit any new employee, they don’t just assess for technical ability but the candidate’s sense of social responsibility and compassion.

“Commitment and a shared value system are crucial to how we operate. People with disabilities are not looking for handouts, but opportunities to work and contribute to the economy. We are a company that understands this and everyone on our team has to approach the contribution of differently abled people with respect.”

HR leadership is crucial in that it needs to lead the change from focusing on perceived limitations to emphasising the abilities of all individuals, he adds.

Design your operations, processes and the environment in an inclusive manner

This includes educating yourself to better understand the spectrum of disabilities, both cognitive and physical, and how the related limitations and strengths may be expressed in the workplace.

Jonathan advises that leaders  take a practical approach: “Simply walk their journey for a day, from entry into your premises, to the way amenities such as kitchens and toilets are set up. Setting up accessibility devices like a ramp or handrail can make a huge difference.”

In the case of LESCO, this means that the assembly process was designed for people whose abilities are different. As a result, all factory workers are empowered to assemble a product with great ease.

Many of the barriers faced by people with disabilities stem from the stereotypes,  perceptions, beliefs and attitudes of those around them. These perpetuate ongoing discrimination and lack of inclusion. “We focus on their professional and personal development, from skills training and where needed speech, occupational, and physiotherapy sessions. By doing that, we have successfully taken down all barriers of entry to meaningful employment.”

LESCO’s results are proof that even with a majority differently abled team, great results are achievable. The company produces up to 500,000 electrical products per month, selling to major retailers and electrical wholesalers.

Leverage meaningful partnerships

LESCO collaborates with Afrika Tikkun on its placements. The partnership is based on shared values and has given LESCO the opportunity to take on talent that is often not even considered by other organisations.

LESCO has benefitted from Afrika Tikkun’s access to a wide network of candidates, who are assessed for trainability, cognitive behaviour and job matching. 

Adhere to best industry practices

There are globally held standards to guide organisations on their journey to more inclusivity. For example, The Supplier Ethical Data Exchange (SEDEX) is a system designed to help organisations manage data on labour practices in their supply chain. The audit assesses a site based on their organisation’s standards of labour, health and safety, environment and business ethics.

LESCO is SEDEX approved, which means they conform to the highest standard of responsible and ethical practices. “This ensures our work environment is suitable for all our workers and includes the regular investment in skills development with all our staff,” says Jonathan.

“Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, differently abled people were excluded from the economy and struggled to find employment. Unfortunately, this struggle is set to get harder,” says Jonathan as he urges organisations to fast track the inclusion of differently abled people.