The transition to new ways of working in the context of a global pandemic with far-reaching societal and economic implications– presents both challenges and opportunities for promoting the inclusion of persons with special abilities. Many persons with disabilities come into the COVID-19 crisis already facing significant exclusion in all areas of the world of work. The pandemic and resulting economic shocks increase the vulnerability of persons with disabilities to further inequalities.
For some employees with special abilities, avoiding commuting to work every day can open up a range of jobs they can now perform from home. Having a setup conducive to their special needs at home also encourages them to get more meaningful work they can perform productively. With everyone working from home, they can feel as much a part of the workforce as the rest of the team. However, for others, the commute may not have been as much of a problem. Instead, employers’ reasonable accommodations for employees with special abilities at work enabled them to do their jobs efficiently. For some, working in person allowed them to understand social signals and messages that may not be apparent in online communication.
So how has the pandemic fared for people who are differently-abled? Has remote work enabled the inclusion of persons with special needs? What are organizations doing to accelerate their efforts?
Here is a quick insight into some of the practices and initiatives adopted globally to improve the inclusion of differently-abled people at work. Further, based on the interaction with different leaders and research, this article outlines some recommendations on how organizations can further strengthen their diversity and inclusion agenda.
How COVID-19 fared for persons with special abilities
Speaking to Leila McKenzie-Delis, Founder & CEO, DIAL Global, a global community for Diverse Inclusive Aspirational Leader, on how COVID-19 has fared for persons with special abilities she shares:
“Like all of us, people with special abilities have faced challenges and opportunities in 2020 with the COVID crisis. The widespread acceptance of working from home and the use of video conferencing technologies in some instances made people’s working lives easier. However, these same things can also cause issues and frustrations depending on the individual. I think every individual has had to learn to adapt depending on their personal abilities and disabilities. For me, as someone who suffers from mental health issues, the crisis caused me to have to put extra discipline into my own self-care including blocking out time for exercise, counseling, and meditation.”
Jaya Virwani, Diversity & Inclusiveness and Ethics Leader, EY Global Delivery Services, shares her personal experience during her interaction with one of her team members who is visually impaired and currently staying with his parents. She shares that while her colleague said that he was happy staying with family, he couldn’t wait to come back, as he was missing the people interaction at work.” EY Global Delivery Services has introduced Purple Champions- a buddy program to provide support to the differently-abled employees in these tough times. The initiative provides a supportive community to enhance collaboration, listening, and action on the needs of differently-abled people and promote inclusiveness.
Making remote work inclusive for employees
Accessibility has turned out to be a major accelerator to the efforts of promoting the inclusion of persons with special abilities.
Supporting the fact, Ira Gupta, Head of Human Resources, India at Microsoft shares, “Accessibility has never been more important than it is today. We know that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted people with disabilities. According to the World Health Organization, only one in 10 people with disabilities have access to assistive technology that they need to be successful. To enable everyone to be productive in a work-from-home context, we need to build workplaces that are inclusive, accessible, and committed to empowering people with disabilities.”
Leila further shares, “In our 2020 report, the McKenzie-Delis Packer Review, we compiled expert advice. While 91 percent of participating organizations have a process to ensure employees with disabilities and long-term conditions have the adjustments they need at work (this includes assistive technology, ergonomics equipment, and flexed working times) – it will be critical for them to ensure they look at new working patterns and behaviors due to the COVID-19 crisis.”
Accessibility to digital tools, wellbeing support, and creating an environment of empathy are some of the key areas that employers are focusing on to make remote working more inclusive for employees.
Here is a look at some of the initiatives:
Lakshmi C, Managing Director, and Lead - Human Resources, Accenture in India shares, "For us, technology has been a significant enabler. We have a ‘Disability Adjustment Request’ platform that acts as a one-stop-shop for all reasonable accommodation requirements of our people including assistive technologies and ergonomic adjustments while offering a very personalized experience. We have an Accessibility Centre of Excellence that helps our people choose the right assistive technology and enablement devices. Our people can also visit the center to experience the technology or device before they decide to request it. An example of this is our in-house platform called Dhvani that enables voice to text and text to voice conversion and supports communication for people who have speech, hearing, and language disabilities. Dhvani is integrated with all our virtual collaboration platforms. Additionally, all of our web and technology applications are built such that they are completely accessible for persons with disabilities.”
Applied Materials & Enable India
Vinaya Chinnappa, Program Manager, Livelihoods, EnAble India, shares, " Applied Materials in association with Enable India ensured that hiring differently-abled talent is not impacted by the virtual environment. Applied material through Enable India created resources to ensure an end to end support for organizations in an online world including sensitization of staff, sourcing, onboarding, and retention.”
Enable India proactively reached out to both, employers and employees with special needs to understand their challenges in a remote working environment. Necessary resources and support were provided to ensure that the transition was a smooth experience for both sides, ensuring the wellbeing and the inclusion of PwD employees in a remote working environment.
Krishna Raghavan, Chief People Officer, Flipkart shares some of the initiatives that Flipkart has taken in the recent past. Flipkart engaged with dedicated sign language interpreters to conduct sessions on COVID safety for eDAB (Ekartians with Different Abilities) employees who have special speech and hearing needs. The company also organized periodic counseling sessions in collaboration with NGOs, HR business partners, and sign language interpreters to help answer any queries that employees had related to COVID-19 and safe hygiene practices. Along with the rest of the company's supply chain employees, the eDAB employees too received financial assistance to purchase mobile devices, pick up & drop facility from work and doctor consultation services, and COVID-19 testing arrangements. The company made sure that all possible preventive measures and safety precautions are implemented and thoroughly followed at all the facilities across the country for the benefit and safety of the supply chain employees and delivery partners.
"The company is building and nurturing a socially inclusive ecosystem that not only extends the access of all opportunities to the employees with accessibility needs but also empowers them to participate in all wakes of life. The company has set up a dedicated COVID-19 helpline number to address the challenges and queries of all employees, and with extended support on a need basis for employees with disabilities. With the aim to help employees with special needs through the pandemic, the company has also worked towards setting up a mobile-enabled Employee Outreach Portal that provides an open platform to get all required information regarding WFH policies, WFH tips, help with an HR system, etc., from one common source. Employee Outreach Portal is a platform that is also extended to employees across Mphasis," shares Srikanth Karra, Chief Human Resources Officer, Mphasis.
Popejai Pte Ltd
"To enable our employees to work effectively, we utilize a simplified redesign model to constantly innovate solutions to assist employees who face challenges in their daily routines, thereby enhancing productivity for all employees. We have created a range of innovations and redesigned workspaces by focusing on their strengths instead of their disabilities," shares Janelle Soh, Assistant Marketing Manager. Popejai Pte Ltd.
"COVID-19 19 has led to a unique opportunity for the workforce to lean in on digital communication tools. For people with special abilities, technology has enabled them to work from home. Accessibility is a critical part of creating equity within the organization and we have focused on upgrading our infrastructure and benefits, keeping in mind the diverse needs of our associates. Some of the benefits include insurance covers for surgeries related to accidents and treatment for acquired disability, ergonomic workstations, and necessary software to aid associates to work from home seamlessly. Equally important is to build a culture of inclusion, and we are conducting several programs and activations on this day to sensitize our larger workforce, reduce biases, and empower people dealing with disabilities," shares Sudeep Ralhan, Vice President, People, Walmart Global Tech India.
The future of work and persons with special abilities
The technological revolution of the last decades is responsible for the pace at which the world is being transformed. New technologies will create new jobs while rendering others obsolete. A rift in the world of work is expected to open due to lower demand for midlevel qualifications and a higher demand for low and high-level expertise.
The wage gap is therefore set to widen, with a rise in the salaries attached to highly-qualified jobs and a drop in those associated with less-qualified employment.
The impact on persons with disabilities who are already in the labor force will depend on the jobs they currently have and on the efforts being made by their employers themselves and the support of public administrations, to move to jobs that remain and ideally to highly-qualified jobs. Technologies that do not replace jobs but enhance them by supporting the work of people can be relevant for some persons with disabilities, replacing tasks they might not be able to do or not do as effectively as others.
However, one of the challenges in most parts of the world is that often differently-abled people aren’t hired for the skills they can get to the table or the business. Often it is done as a tick-in-the-box activity to maintain a diversity index. We have a huge pool of talent that is still untapped.
Jaya reflecting on why organizations haven’t been able to tap talent from the vast pool of potential available to us shares, it is all about mindset, the maturity of people managers, and the leadership agenda. She shared a great example of how hiring neurodiverse professionals helped EY GDS accelerate their innovation agenda. EY GDS realized that neurodiverse individuals are often technologically inclined and detail-oriented, with strong skills in analytics, mathematics, pattern recognition, and information processing — among the very skills businesses most urgently need.
EY’s famous and much-applauded initiative Neurodiversity Centre of Excellence hires individuals with autism to serve as full-time account support associates. Account support associates organize and analyze data sent in from account teams and translate it into meaningful information to help improve our client service.
On a similar note, to empower differently-abled people for leadership roles, In 2017, Accenture launched a program titled ‘Abilities Unleashed’, a leadership development program for persons with disabilities; the program is a 5-month blended learning experience that has classroom sessions, leadership mentoring, one-to-one strengths coaching and self-study. Given the success of the program, this has now been extended to other career levels too.
Lakshmi also highlights another initiate of Accenture, The Career Path Framework identifies various employee touchpoints/interventions required through the career life cycle of Persons with Disabilities at Accenture and builds levers to create a level playing field.
A study published by the World Economic Forum shows that the jobs most in-demand in the coming years will be related to data, AI, and machine learning, where problem-solving capacities will become essential. The new employment paradigm also prioritizes social and personal skills (the value of which cannot be replaced by technological processes) over specific expertise. Skills such as critical thinking, analytical capacity, emotional intelligence, and cognitive flexibility may become essential in this new reality.
In this context, ensuring that persons with disabilities have adequate skills will become even more relevant and will need to address both those seeking to enter the labor market as well as those in the labor market who might be at risk of losing their jobs. Life-long learning will be key for all and needs to be inclusive of persons with disabilities.
There is great potential for upscaling and replication of initiatives like EY and Accenture and it will be important to refer to the best practices and use the lessons to accelerate the efforts in future-proofing the workforce.
COVID-19, the great equalizer as some call it, has presented the opportunity to shake things up in the world of work. The “new normal” is poised to look radically different from the “old normal.” Organizations have the opportunity to create a productive, diverse, and inclusive workplace comprising all groups and create a diverse and inclusive workplace for those with special needs.
(If you want to share practices, suggestions, and recommendations to accelerate the inclusion of people with special abilities at work, do reach out to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org)