A great many people live with disabilities of some kind. But they don’t always have the opportunity to work with those disabilities, often because employers misunderstand the nature of their needs and are reluctant to include them in the workforce.
“According to a 2021 report from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, there are nearly 472 million persons with disabilities within the APAC region. Additionally, a global study by Skillsoft found that while 89% of people want their organisation to be inclusive to those with intellectual disabilities, only 29% expressed no concerns about hiring someone with an intellectual disability. Closer to Asia Pacific, a 2020 Kantar survey commissioned by Special Olympics Asia Pacific found that while 81% of people surveyed across seven Asia Pacific countries felt that PWIDs are able to work in a paid position, 60% perceive them to need a lot of help in the workplace,” said Dipak Natali, President & Managing Director, Special Olympics Asia Pacific in a exclusive interaction with People Matters.
Citing how these numbers point out the challenges that continue to remain in the disability inclusion landscape at the workplace across APAC, Jaya Virwani, EY GDS Ethics and Diversity, Equity and Inclusiveness Leader said, “There’s so much work still to be done.”
Although organisations are investing in bringing to the table a number of tools, technologies and policies to drive the diversity agenda, Natali rightfully pointed out an important lesson for the HR community at large. He said, “There is a difference between meaningful employment versus hiring to meet a diversity quota – and existing policies will need to change for companies to truly be an inclusive space for PwDs to work in. You do not hire someone because they have a disability, you hire someone because they can do the job, regardless of their disability. PwDs can advocate for themselves when they’re given the opportunity, right information, training, and support. We need more such meaningful engagements and listening to happen at the workplace.”
Re-examine your recruitment models to foster inclusive hiring practices:
Tying up with disability stakeholders can have a significant impact on the talent pipeline for your organisation. Chan Yit Foon, Senior Vice President, Human Resources, Marina Bay Sands shared with us the story of how her organisation’s Food & Beverages team back in 2010 took in trainees from Metta School, a local school for students with special needs, of whom three went on to become full-timers. Today, with the F&B industry facing increasing challenges in finding personnel, this lesson can be important for organisations who wish to expand their talent pool.
Employers should also take note of the recruitment policies and processes in place, even the most simple ones. In an interaction with us, Nishigandha Shendge, HR Manager at Fynd called for the provision of alternate formats for application forms and assistance in filling them for candidates with disabilities. This can become applicable to forms filled within the organisation as well. Virwani also brought this point up in our discussion by taking up the case for neurodivergent individuals and how systems need to be in place with a leadership buy-in to give way to different forms of testing and interviewing for candidates. In line with this, onboarding also has to be carried out keeping the spectrum of disability of the concerned hire in mind. There is a need to broaden the ways organisations attract and onboard talent, a long term view becomes critical.
Another interesting initiative being carried out by EY GDS and brought up by Virwani is the creation of a ‘PwD Playbook.’ Even though organisations are initiating innovative strategies to further the agenda of inclusion, all their planning might fall flat if the workforce is not made aware of the policies in place. Accessibility in information is as important as accessibility in infrastructure.
The role of company culture in disability inclusion:
As pointed out by Paul Francis Chong, Operations Director, Malaysia & Singapore, Sodexo, there is a need to shift the mindset around PwD at the workplace. A common perception among companies is that significant workplace and workflow modifications are required, especially for consumer-facing roles. At the same time, he said organisations “may struggle to pinpoint common barriers, such as the use of ableist language, learning to approach PwD the right way when expressing our concerns and offering our help, as well as to recognise and reinterpret communication styles.”
What Sodexo has implemented keeping these hurdles in mind is to first demonstrate how disability has a wide spectrum by hiring PwD at their micro-production kitchen. In a small workspace with the right workflow adaptations, PwD have been empowered to work well in a fast-paced environment like a production kitchen.
Similar initiatives have also been taken by Flex as shared by Sandra Andrews, Senior Director HR, Flex India. Given that most of the conversations about disability tend to centre around physical disabilities, the "Flex Inclusive Factory" at Flex Zhuhai in China has set up a special assembly line for employees with intellectual disabilities namely Down Syndrome and Autism. At EY GDS, cognitive disabilities are factored into the learning content that is made available to their employees; the intention is to make content accessible to those with neuro-divergent individuals and to recognise that there are indeed “different starting points.”
When it comes to creating an inclusive work culture, recruitment is a critical starting point and so is ensuring an ergonomic work environment with the best technologies in place. As Natali said, “It is important to think through what the environment that PwDs will be coming into will look like. This requires effort from all employees, and they must be open to having authentic conversations.” From having buddies and coaches at the workplace for smoother onboarding to resource groups for PwD employees to connect on shared interests, support each other and advocate for change to regular check-ins with PwD employees for visibility and feedback to modifications of infrastructure through regular risk assessment and workplace audits to regular awareness trainings, all of these are fundamental.
But an organisation also has to envision the career growth journeys of its PwD employees. Andrews shared with us that at Flex, the Individual Development Plans (IDP) team assists the HR teams, and managers have regular engagement with PwD employees to understand their career and the direction they would like to take.
Sodexo’s Chong highlighted many of the same initiatives. “At Sodexo, job coaches also train co-workers of these new hires, provide emotional support, and manage relationships with parents or guardians, which are especially helpful when job coaches eventually exit for the new hires to work independently,” he said.
As Virwani emphasises, “DE&I cannot be an add-on responsibility. There is a need for individuals to lead this agenda from within the organisation and take accountability every step of the way.”
With the right policies and behaviour in place, organisations can truly build an inclusive and high trust culture. It will always be a work in process: continuously reworking the points where employees may feel left out and investing in an environment where people are free to be themselves, express their views, and are not just enabled, but also empowered.