The need to mainstream disabled workers in the formal economy

According to the South African Human Rights Commission, an organisation whose mandate is to promote, protect, and monitor the realisation of Human Rights in South Africa, people with disabilities accounted for 5,1% of the population aged five years and older in 2016.

Yet people with disabilities continue to lack access to adequate health and basic education and are at risk of economic isolation with no prospect of securing employment. Five years on and with the unprecedented effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, this situation demands urgent attention.

In fact, according to The National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD), it is estimated that over two-thirds (68%) of disabled adults in SA were not working last year, with the devastating economic impact of Covid-19 making this already dire situation even worse.

In an article published last week on B2B website Bizcommunity, Jonathan Shapiro, CEO of Lesco Manufacturing was quoted as saying that people with disabilities have always struggled to find employment, even before the pandemic, and will, unfortunately, struggle even more now.

Lesco Manufacturing, a producer of electrical products, was founded in 1999 and only employs traditionally unemployable workers, such as disabled and unskilled people.

“Just because someone is in a wheelchair, for example, or has a mental delay or disability, doesn’t mean he or she can’t add value to a business or the economy,” Shapiro stresses. “It is time the private sector comes to terms with this and fast-tracks the inclusion of people with disabilities, regardless of whether there is legislation or not. We can do the right thing without having laws in place.”

Mainstreaming disabled workers

In order to mainstream disabled workers in the formal economy, business needs to shift their mindset and focus on what people can do – rather than on what they cannot do.

Shapiro sites his own company as an example. “All of our 100 factory employees are functionally disabled or unskilled, and all of them are exceptionally valuable to the company. This is because we know their strengths and capabilities, and where and how to apply those. That, and our wish to tap into a valuable and often ignored talent pool, is why we chose to work only with traditionally unemployable people. It forms part of how we see the role of diversity in creating innovation whilst doing good.”

Equal Rights And Opportunities

Improving disability inclusion in the workspace should also include giving disabled workers the same rights and opportunities as other colleagues. Disability inclusion and equality is a human rights issue.

Lesco chairperson Sipho Nkosi says that providing disabled workers with opportunities to grow, develop and expand their skillset should not only be a right, but should be the duty of South African business.

Improving hard and soft skills is critical to building confidence, both inside and outside of the workplace. “More confident staff are happier and more productive workers. All of this enhances operations, too,” says Nkosi.

As an example, Lesco does this by providing staff with speech, physio, and occupational therapy weekly through the Lesco Care programme, over and above skills training initiatives.

Economic benefits

In his recent Economic Reconstruction and Recovery speech, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that extraordinary measures are needed to restore our economy to inclusive growth following the devastation caused by COVID-19 to our people’s lives and our country’s economy.

Successful local companies are important drivers of the local economy, particularly given the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recovery needed over the coming years.

Besides lowering our reliance on imports and increasing the quantity, quality and value of our exports, we need to realise the economic benefits of job creation, especially among those who have long been unemployed.

“Every single person who no longer relies on government grants because they have gained meaningful employment is a win for the private sector, the economy and country at large,” says Nkosi.

Above all else, we need to work together as South Africans to build a new economy.

Sources: BizCommunity; South African Human Rights Commission