Companies that lead in disability employment and inclusion outperform their peers. That’s a finding from Accenture’s Disability Inclusion Advantage report. It shows that such leaders achieved 28 percent higher revenue, double the net income and 30 percent higher profit margins than others.
Yet, when it comes to employment in India Inc., persons with disabilities (PwDs) make up less than 0.5 percent of the employee base in India’s top firms. Even the companies that do hire them can do a lot more to create a truly equal environment that allows PwDs to function at their best.
So, what does India Inc. need to do to make their workplace more inclusive and enable persons with disabilities? Here are some first-hand learnings:
Recruit more persons with disabilities
The more inclusive the organization, the greater the sensitivity, understanding and respect for the abilities of the disabled from other employees. One reason why Guneet Sethi, a National Award winner who happens to be 100 percent visually challenged, chose to work in the mainstream and not at a blind school, was because she wanted to make her mark as an equal and show the world that a disabled person can be equally capable. She has been a teacher, front office and communications manager, voiceover artist, creative writer, and trainer across leading educational institutions, non-profit and media organizations.
As an active motivational speaker and training facilitator, she shares, “The 1,000-odd people who I have worked with... at least they know that a blind person can work at par. They will probably tell another 500 people. So, the next time they see a blind person, they will not be as ignorant or negative as they used to be. To my mind, a disabled person is not the one who has lost one of his faculties, but one who has disabled his abilities.”
Sensitize employees that persons with disabilities do not want favors, but acceptance as equals
Amol Nakve, HR Lead at the NASSCOM Foundation, has over a decade’s experience in various HR roles at different organizations. As a physically disabled person with a paraplegic leg, he has valuable inputs to share when it comes to making the disabled feel more welcome. He says, “I feel what is most important is acceptance by the employees in the organization. People should behave inclusively. They should not consider persons with disabilities as different from them. For example, when they’re going for lunch, or stepping out for a break, or even going trekking, they should not assume that a disabled person will not be able to do all that along with them. It reflects the apprehensions that come from unsaid unconscious biases. Look at me, in all my HR roles, I have traveled for work everywhere. Before the lockdown, I was in Shimla walking up steep slopes with papers and bags! Even in my daily routine, I go to my office on my own. I have trained myself to walk independently on one leg without using any kind of support. That’s how I have built my strength, and that’s what I want everyone else to understand and see that a disabled person is not different from them.”
On a similar note, Guneet adds cheerfully, “Let people know that people with visual disabilities have the right to dress up, look good, go to the parlor, do everything! It is all in the mind. There is no denying that people with “disabilities” have a whole deal of challenges to face, overcome and endure to rise stronger—and mostly, that is a result of unconscious biases that people around them hold when it comes to working with the disabled.”
Avoid non-inclusive phrases and discourses
Words and expressions slowly ingrain a kind of messaging and assumptions in people’s minds that ultimately form the organization’s culture. Guneet shares a snippet from her professional experience, “When somebody introduces me as Here...Meet Guneet Sethi. She’s visually impaired. That makes me uncomfortable. Yes, it’s a fact that I am 100 percent visually impaired, but that’s not my qualification. It is only my limitation. The world would be so much more inclusive if we did not define label people. If you label someone as visually challenged, you automatically make us the “other,” that is, not normal. Then it doesn’t matter what you call the label—abled, especially abled, normal, challenged, etc.”
Invest in people, inclusiveness will follow
Organizations have to invest in their employees. Guneet shares, “By investing, I don’t mean in terms of money. You have to invest in terms of emotions, care, comfort and space. However big or small the organization, the moment you invest in people and give them that space to give you productivity and output, you will realize that inclusiveness will happen automatically.”
Put persons with disabilities in I&D roles
On building empathy for the disabled, Amol makes a compelling point, “To have empathy in inclusion and diversity (I&D), have persons with disabilities at leadership positions in your D&I initiatives. You can be a very good I&D leader. But to have empathy, you have to “feel” what a disabled person’s challenge is. You can think about it, probably your assumptions will be right, but they are still assumptions. You have never faced that challenge. For example, how to climb stairs with one leg. You can imagine that you may have to hold like this, or hold there, but you will never really know what it feels like.”
Get the infrastructure in place, both physical and software
The differently abled needs different kinds of physical arrangements. It is best to have that ready before hiring a person with disability so that the recruitment is completely successful. For example, you may need to look at lightweight laptops, Job Access With Speech (JAWS) software, a ramp, or a mentor-friend to help with orientation until the person becomes comfortable in the new environment.
So, are you ready to include people with different abilities in your organization? Are you ready to check the person’s capability for the job profile, unbiased by other factors? To give that person some space to improve? If your answer is yes, go ahead and build diverse teams and inclusive work ecosystems. It’s sure to create long-term benefits for your people and your business.