HR Indaba hears workplace disability conversations must move beyond integration to inclusion

Transformative cultures don't just include the diversity of disability, they recognise and embrace its value.

Speaking at the 2019 HR Indaba, Lesa Bradshaw, a disability inclusion specialist and founder of Bradshaw LeRoux, put forward the case that disability planning should be a business imperative. Research indicates that as many as one in four of today’s twenty year olds will acquire a disability before they retire. 

But inclusion is not just about equity and fairness, it also makes good business sense. People living with disabilities are currently the largest minority group in the world. This is a one billion strong group of consumers, tax payers and employees. 

Lesa pointed out: 

“We all know someone with a disability. It shouldn’t be a case of ‘them’ and ‘us’. The conversation needs to move from integration, to true inclusion. Integration is saying OK we’ll let you in. Play in our world, provided our world doesn’t change. By contrast, true inclusion is opening up more positions to talented, disabled candidates, instead of recruiting into a defined roles to meet employment equity requirements. Then, it’s making the workplace truly accommodating, instead of simply complying to the most basic of building standards."

A World Health Organization survey in 51 countries reveals that a 52.8 percent employment rate of males with a disability and a 19.6 percent rates for females. 

In South Africa, despite legislation, we have gone backwards in terms of disability inclusion in the workplace. The 18th Commission for Employment Equity Report reflects on our employers’ dismal stats as only 1.3 percent of top, senior management and professional occupational levels are occupied by disabled employees. This falls to 0.9 percent for semi-skilled and unskilled occupational levels. 

With many companies having a matric as a minimum employment requirement, it’s not surprising that those with disabilities are automatically excluded. Only 6 percent of children with a disability will achieve a matric. For hearing impaired children, only 10 deaf schools in South Africa offer a matric qualification. When the education system fails the disabled, the workplace needs to be more flexible.

“This is not say that you need to scrap the policy on minimum matric requirements, but you need to flex for the right disabled candidate,” said Lesa. 

For employees with disabled children, their companies can step in to sponsor their education. This is a powerful way to improve the pipeline of future disabled employees, while taking a huge weight off your employee’s shoulder. 

Lesa believes we need to radically shift how we think about inclusion. This means moving away from separate schools, separate transport systems and allocated job roles for disabled employees. For example, a flap out ramp on a bus is no more expensive than a step. 

Lesa is still shocked to find that new buildings are constructed without considering disability. There may be a disabled parking and a ramp at the entrance, but that’s where it ends. Changes in the physical environment are not the only changes required. Companies also have to be cognisant of creating an accessible virtual environment. Certain software, for visually impaired individuals, needs to be able to connect with the network. 

In the workplace, meaningful inclusion is about integrating those with disabilities and seeing the ability first, before the disability. She doesn’t believe that offsite disability learnerships, where companies earn the BEE points, but keep disability on the margins achieve this inclusion ideal.