Business in SA is badly lagging behind in employing workers with disabilities

With only 1.6% of people with disabilities in top management and 1.3% at senior management, representation is sparse and champions are few.

By Dr Armand Bam for Daily Maverick

It is estimated that 1.3 billion people globally experience significant disability. This is close to 20% of the world’s population, of which 80% are of working age.

As modern medicine and healthcare improve, humans are living longer. But at some stage we all enter this minoritised group. In other words, disability is not an experience reserved for “others”; it is part of being human. While not a homogenous group of people, aspects like sex, age, gender identity, religion, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, economic status and employment are among the many factors that affect people’s quality of life.

A key issue is the economic inclusion and participation, or more specifically the employment, of people with disabilities – 80% of people with disabilities live in developing countries, with most languishing in poverty.

It is estimated that only one in nine adult South Africans with disabilities is employed, so it is evident that the actualisation of the right to work does not accrue to all its citizens. This begs the question of whether work is truly a human right or, through the continued exclusion of people with disabilities, it has become a dehumanising right, reinforcing inequalities in our society between disabled and non-disabled people.

The government remains the largest employer in the country and has consistently failed to reach its own targets of employing a paltry 2% of people with disabilities. The ANC and its progressive policies of inclusion are all but left to suffer the consequences of a government and public sector paralysed by inefficiency.

We do not need patronage and paternalism, but rather skilled application and commitment to these policies for us to make gains as espoused in the White Paper on an Integrated National Disability Strategy.

Beyond the failures within the public sector, advanced legislation and guidelines for the employment of people with disabilities have to a large degree been crippled by poor application of corporate initiatives for inclusion. In the latest Commission for Employment Equity Report we see the consistently low levels of representation in the workforce across all levels and the private sector’s failure to exceed the 2% mark.

With only 1.6% of people with disabilities in top management and 1.3% in senior management, representation is sparse and champions are few.

With supposed transformation targets for senior executives, it is time for shareholders to hold them to account for this apparent failure. It is no longer a question of whose responsibility it is to address this, but rather how business must actively play its role against the backdrop of high unemployment rates among young people and adults with disabilities.

It is crucial for employers to understand what meaning work brings to the lives of people with disabilities. Work as an activity is important for the development of one’s identity. It brings meaning, opportunities to engage, socialise and network and, importantly, economic inclusion and independence.

Yet the pessimism around employing people with disabilities persists and is often linked to how employers in the country either “don’t see” people with disabilities available in the labour market or think they are “too expensive” or “they won’t fit in”.

These attitudinal barriers must be addressed and not through some “cheap” sensitisation workshops, but through a far deeper introspection and the education of business leaders in South Africa. The inclusion of people with disabilities must become part of your business and not a gimmick. We can no longer afford to exclude them from work based on a perceived “lack of capabilities”. Businesses, organisations and institutions must see work as an important contributor to the well-being of people with disabilities and this nation.

Even where people with disabilities gain employment, they are often underemployed and paid less than their non-disabled colleagues. To address this, businesses, organisations and institutions must reconsider how they define inclusion. The traditional tick-box “call centre” approach, housing people with disabilities in segregated work streams with no prospects for career progression, must be done away with.

It is not good enough to suggest that people with disabilities are being employed; we must see their progression within the workplace and into the boardrooms.

For this transformation to occur, leaders need to understand the challenges people with disabilities face. Values, attitudes and the “norms” within businesses, organisations and institutions must be aligned with a commitment to bring about change and create an inclusive workforce, improving the quality of experiences for people with disabilities, not just the quantity of experiences. While “numbers” matter, the manner in which this representation is attained must be considered.

Beyond ‘buy-in’

Where do we have more work to do? You will often be told that to facilitate change in an organisation you need to have leadership to “buy in”. Here I want to suggest that more than “buy in”, we need business leaders to act with care. Care is relational and requires leaders to first pay attention to their (dis)connection to a constituency – in this instance, people with disabilities. Business leaders must step out of their boardrooms and “meet” people with disabilities where they are at. A greater understanding of their employment challenges will go a long way.

Second, care requires business leadership to shift their motivations, especially in the realm of employment equity. For meaningful change to occur, leaders need to avoid compliance-motivated actions and address the current challenge from the perspective of those who are excluded. They need to see the socioeconomic inequalities exacerbated by the limited access to work from the perspective of people with disabilities.

The third aspect of care that is required is dedication and commitment to including people with disabilities in the workplace. The “increased costs” or “cultural fit” excuses are now long in the tooth. Leaders cannot be hindered by their own policies and bureaucratic processes that undermine an improved workforce inclusive of people with disabilities. Leaders must be held accountable by shareholders to train their people to understand inclusion better rather than to exclude “others” based on expediency.

Finally, leaders should be consistent in their commitment even in the face of resistance. Too often the resistance to including people with disabilities comes from within an organisation and works to reinforce the notion of the “other”. Here, leaders must be able to transcend this dilemma and work with employees to exceed the minimum targets set by the government and industry.

Let us hold each other accountable to care and commit to ensuring a more inclusive society, one which embraces the contribution of all citizens to the economy, not only a select few.

Dr Armand Bam is Head: Social Impact and Small Business Academy at the Stellenbosch Business School, Stellenbosch University.



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