Disability Training: Changing Perceptions of Disability
Disability training in the workplace is not always a hot topic. In fact, as a group, people with disabilities are often last on the agenda when it comes to Employment Equity (EE). This is slowly changing, if not to reach EE targets set by government, but many corporates are recognizing that people with disabilities make good employees! They are a source of valuable skills and assets who can make a positive contribution to a more diverse and represented workforce in your company.
Having a physical disability makes this a passion of mine. In fact, it is what led me to be a professional speaker! I realized that I had a responsibility to share my story. I was fortunate to attend mainstream schooling, have a full bursary from the Department of Labour to study at Stellenbosch University, and now enjoy a successful career as a Clinical Psychologist. I will never forget meeting a young female patient at a rehab centre who had recently lost an arm and a leg in a car accident. She was stunned at first meeting me as the therapist in the hospital. She could not stop asking, “Nicky, how did you get a job?” In her culture, a person with a disability stays at home, gets a disability grant and stops dreaming.
People with disabilities need better access to higher education, training and contact with role models in business and various career paths. Companies, particularly top management, need to learn more about the abilities of people with disabilities and learn to integrate the theory of EE into practice. Many managers tell me that people with disabilities are some of their most motivated employees. They have fought hard to achieve their positions in an already competitive job market.
What is hindering the employment of people with disabilities? It is all about the perception of disability (or ability). People are afraid of the unknown. Companies are focused on outcomes – if there are misconceptions about the abilities of people with disabilities, they are likely to avoid those candidates during recruitment. It may be an assumption that the person cannot perform the tasks required. It may be a concern that the reasonable accommodations will be too expensive. It may even be that the recruiter is too afraid to ask these questions for fear of being politically incorrect!
Disability has moved from the medical model (what is wrong with the individual in terms of an illness or condition) to the social model. The social model is more empowering and recognizes that attitudes and our environment are what make us disabled. For instance, if I use a wheelchair and give a motivational talk at a company where the venue for my talk is upstairs (no lift is available) that environment makes me disabled. Likewise, attitudes that people with disabilities are inferior, cannot work and do not deserve equal access can also make us disabled. Until this shift is internalized and disability is accepted as a human rights issue (not a welfare issue), our (mis)perceptions will remain barriers for change.
So, how do we change perceptions of disability? As a start, we need more role models and change agents in the workplace! Companies that are open to employing a person with a disability usually have had a positive experience with an employee with a disability. Take SAP for example. As a company, they have recognized the unique ability of people with autism with tasks that require attention to detail. So much so, that they are specifically recruiting people on the autism spectrum!
What are reasonable accommodations? The operative word is reasonable. The aim is to give the employee with a disability (with the necessary qualifications) an equal employment opportunity and ability to perform their job. Examples of reasonable accommodations:
- Making the office environment accessible
- Job restructuring (making changes in non-essential functions if necessary)
- Part-time or flexi-time work schedules
- Acquiring or modifying office equipment
- Changing training and assessment materials
- Readers or sign-language interpreters
- Making the interview process non-discriminatory
The advantage of investing in accommodations in the workplace is that your company becomes more accessible to clients and future employees. Besides recruiting people with disabilities, there is also the possibility that someone in your current workforce may become disabled (temporarily or permanently) and accommodations will be necessary for their continued employment.
How do I encourage my employees to disclose their disability? The bottom line is that companies need points for their EE status. Without knowledge of a disability, no reasonable accommodations can be made. Some employees are hesitant to declare their disability, particularly those with disabilities that can be hidden. They are afraid that they will be judged, that confidentiality will be broken, or that the disclosure may jeopardize future promotions. It comes down to our perceptions once again; if there is a culture of acceptance, empowerment and recognition of disability within the company, employees will be more likely to disclose.
Why is disability training so important? We need to challenge our perceptions of disability, usually developed through our past experiences and relationships. Workshops generating facilitated discussion and solutions can assist in breaking down our personal and corporate barriers to inclusion. Disability training (as part of larger scale diversity training) is important, particularly for top management, human resource departments and those involved in transformation within a company. I’m privileged to be part of this process (visit training) and look forward to continuing this discussion.