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.
Technological developments have made it even easier to create such an environment, writes Rudi van Blerk, partner and Africa people and organisation practice lead at Boston Consulting Group, Johannesburg.
According to an International Labour Organisation (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. 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 notes that PwD in developing countries are at a greater disadvantage than those in developed countries, for these reasons.
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% of employees said they had a disability. In South Africa, the figure was 24%.
But on average across the world, employers report only 4% to 7% of employees are PwD. That means that employers are potentially ignoring the needs of almost a quarter of their workforce.
In South Africa, 46% of PwD who had not disclosed their disability said it was because they feared discrimination and bias, and 54% of PwD who had disclosed it said they had personally experienced discrimination.
BCG has developed a tool to measure employees’ sense of inclusion, called the BLISS Index (Bias-Free, Leadership, Inclusion, Safety and Support). In South Africa, PwD’s BLISS score was four points lower than that of their able-bodied peers. That means in practice that if an organisation of 1,000 people can close the gap in the BLISS Score, it can retain 20 more employees.
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
BCG recommends 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 destigmatises 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.
Mentorships give PwD acknowledgement that the employer has noticed them and their aspirations and is matching them with someone who can help them to fulfil those aspirations. The average global BLISS score for PwD with a mentor is eight points higher than for those without a mentor.
BLISS scores also improve significantly when the employer makes reasonable accommodation, such as providing particular equipment or software, flexible working or adjustments to the physical environment. In these workplaces, the BLISS score of PwD was 17 points higher than it was for PwD whose requests were denied.
According to the Job Accommodation Network in the US (part of the Department of Labour), 56% of those who provided accommodation said it cost nothing extra and others said it only cost an extra $500 on average. Providing reasonable accommodation is about ensuring that all employees, not only PwD, have what they need to be productive, efficient and effective at work.
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.
Aside from the policy steps that BCG recommends, some of the ILO’s recommendations for employers are: review talent acquisition programmes to target PwD to fill digital gaps; ensure general training is available to all employees; and use digital tools to adapt workplaces and ensure that digital platforms, tools and processes are accessible.
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.