Designing inclusive environments for people with disabilities is not optional for organisations

Published On: 25 April 2023|

Millions of people are classified as disabled in South Africa. After years of advocacy over developing inclusive cultures in organisations, Dr Karen Smit, Head of the Specific Needs/Accessibility Department at Vodacom’s Commercial Business Unit, says it is disheartening to still be harping on the “why” and “how” of this issue in 2023, when we should be sharing success stories.

On 10 March, Dr Smit (right) addressed a meeting of the Employment Equity Managers’ Forum (EEMF), to discuss pathways for creating safe environments for staff disability disclosure. The EEMF is a sub-committee of Universities South Africa’s Human Resources Directors’ (HRD) Forum that also has a reporting line to the Transformation Managers’ Forum (TMF).

In her opening statement, she said organisations are most likely to consider people with visible (physical) disabilities to anticipate the needs of such individuals. Yet, the disability classification includes a wide range of health and physical body conditions — some of which are invisible. She mentioned depression, bipolar, autism, epilepsy, dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as examples of disability forms with which employees battle. Because workplaces often find these challenging to handle, the afflicted people tend to conceal their status.

Dr Smit said although disability disclosure and accommodation are simple terms, they can also be unnecessarily over-complicated.

She said any person is susceptible to disability. It is therefore mindboggling to see how inconsiderate and unaccommodating some people remain to those with special needs.

Disabled people are not the problem

Living with physical disabilities herself, and being a champion for inclusivity, Dr Smit alerted the EEMF to prevailing attitudes, which are often the reason why organisations take long to see and remove barriers. She cited an interview candidate in a wheelchair, who had informed the prospective employer of their status only to find the venue inaccessible and with no provision made to accommodate their disability. Yet it is legislatively prescribed that “you may not discriminate against people with disabilities.”

She mentioned the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Courts as the recourse available to disabled people who feel discriminated against, for lodging complaints. She reiterated that disability inclusion in the workplace is akin to respecting human rights; is in line with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 10 on Reduced Inequalities and is a call to not leave any person behind.

Among the many challenges that people living with disabilities experience, Dr Smit mentioned lack of education and work experience, unemployment, unreachable workplaces, inaccessible or no transport, lack of empathy and barriers to healthcare. As a result, people with disabilities end up hidden in society, because they eventually give up. They refuse to go anywhere, including school. Speaking from personal experience, Dr Smit said “it is really about the attitudes of people around us and not our disabilities”.

It is time to introspect

“I want to challenge everyone here to start seeing the world as a diverse space and understand that not everyone will look like you,” she said, imploring the EEMF members to start assessing how they can provide the best experiences for staff and students at their institutions. “This could be your competitive advantage because diversity and inclusion promote innovation,” she said.

She also demonstrated the impact of exclusion of people with disabilities. Generally, refusing to accommodate or employ disabled people widens the societal divide. “This denies them opportunities, access to information, increases the number of tuned-out people and stifles the growth of employees who cannot be themselves in the workplace,” she said. “It ultimately impedes participation in society.”

Selective inclusivity

Dr Smit said although many organisations purport to be embracing diversity, when examining their processes, this is often found to be inaccurate. She said the term “inclusive” has become a buzzword that focuses on one aspect of inclusivity: gender parity. She said for disabled people to see and feel the difference in their workplaces, the message of inclusivity has to start at top management; otherwise, inconsiderate behaviour will be perpetuated at middle to lower management, including in staff. She added that inclusivity must be visible in individual business units, and across the system.

“Ultimately, it is about creating an inclusive culture and for the top management to share that philosophy with the entire organisation,” she said. “These conversations should be in the human resources management, executive committees, boards, teams and group meetings’ agendas all year, not only in November, when it is Disability Month.”

Staff must appreciate the benefit of disclosing their disability status

Smit told EEMF that if managers refuse to accommodate people with visible disabilities, those with invisible disabilities will not even consider disclosing, for fear of being treated with contempt.

She said the disability disclosure is not merely a compliance and box-ticking exercise. Instead, employers must prompt disclosure to inform the provisions and measures to implement, so that everyone feels that they belong. Disclosure also helps inform health and safety policies including evacuation procedures in the workplace. It goes as far as influencing how to structure activities such as team building, that encourage everyone’s participation and the types of training to implement. Even during recruitment processes, it is vital to have a panel with insights into disabilities, she said.

Dr Smit said undoubtedly, creating an accessible and inclusive environment yields a thriving workforce. While universities want people to disclose, they should enable appreciation of the benefit of doing so. “Organisations must be authentic about creating a safe environment, even psychologically, for people to share their needs without any fear.”

Organisations also needed to provide disability awareness training to managers and staff, Dr Smit encouraged. No one should act as though they are doing a disabled person a favour by accommodating their needs because it is their human right. She advised managers to listen empathetically and be aware of their unconscious bias when dealing with disabled employees. That also necessitated asking the person with special needs how best they can be accommodated and keeping organisational conversations alive on disability inclusion.

The Vodacom experience

She told the EEMF that Vodacom, her company, had created resource groups for people with disabilities to discuss barriers experienced in the workplace, and success stories. These had led to introducing necessary improvements in the workspace.

“We allow staff to co-create a user-friendly workplace because you cannot create a workplace without the voice and participation of people with disabilities. I guarantee you, as soon as you start a disability employee forum driven by those with disabilities, where leaders talk to them, it will lead to disabled people in your organisation feeling they have a seat at the table and that their voice matters.”

Lastly, Dr Smit said organisations should not position disability awareness and disclosure in the workplace as an act of charity or a burden to managers. It must be an exciting activity towards genuine inclusivity.

The EEMF response

Ms Lucina Reddy (left), Chairperson of the EEMF and Employment Equity Specialist at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, said staff disability disclosure at universities should extend to how institutions attract differently abled individuals to form part of their workforce.

Thanking Dr Smit for her guiding insights, she said as universities begin to reflect on physical barriers and spaces for students and staff, the impending sectoral targets for persons with disabilities, from the Department of Employment and Labour, should also provide crucial guidance for how universities should function and position themselves in this context.

“We want to get a sense of reasonable accommodation policies and protocols for universities, and how, if necessary, to reshape our employment equity plans,” she said.

The mandate of the EEMF is to assess universities’ employment equity performance as guided by the Employment Equity Act. It also facilitates the sharing of best practices.

During 2023, the EEMF will focus on a) the attraction and retention of staff with disabilities and b) succession planning and inter-institutional support. Considering that the Review of Universal Access and Disabilities Support in Higher Education is one of the priority concerns of Universities South Africa’s Transformation Strategy Group for 2023 – outsourced to the Transformation Managers’ Forum — this discussion was aptly timed.

Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant for Universities South Africa.