From CSR into HR: Disability inclusion in the workplace

Person with a disability using technology in the workplace. Photo by: How Do I?

BARCELONA — Stigma and misconception can mean that people living with disabilities are often overlooked for positions. In low- and middle-income countries this situation is often exacerbated: In Kenya, as many as 67 percent of people living with a disability are unemployed, while in South Africa that number rises to 80 percent.

Remedying this could improve the economic circumstances of individuals, families, and even entire communities, as well as preventing mental health issues resulting from isolation, or loss of self-worth.

“If you think about what a job enables you to do, not just in terms of money, but all the other things that come with that — being part of a community, relationships through work, giving people structure in the day — there's so much that it adds to not only the person but the community,” said Tom Casson, founder of How Do I?, an app designed to deliver practical, video-enabled tools to make learning more accessible.

“[Inclusion] needs to move from CSR into HR — that’s the tipping point to try and get over. It isn’t a charitable thing, it’s something you could really benefit from as a business.”

— Tom Casson, founder, How Do I?

According to the World Health Organization’s 2011 World report on disability, across 51 countries employment rates are 52.8 percent for men with a disability and 19.6 percent for women with a disability. Even the global development community is not as disability-inclusive in terms of employment as it might be.

Charlotte Vuyiswa McClain-Nhlapo, global disability adviser in the Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice of the World Bank, claims the sector hasn’t embraced the notion of diversity to include disability.

“The focus has been on how to create jobs for youth, jobs for women, jobs for a whole range of ethnic minorities,” she said. “But the focus on disability is one where we don’t see a sufficient amount of traction.”

So how can employers, including within the aid sector, be encouraged to offer positions to more people living with a disability?

Devex’s Development Enabled series:

Development Enabled explores the daily challenges of people with disabilities, while looking at solutions on how to support a disability-inclusive world.

Tackle misconceptions

McClain-Nhlapo believes one of the largest misconceptions around people with disabilities and employment is a lack of ability to perform.

“There’s a perception in many places that they are dependent on others, or unhealthy or unwell,” she said, adding that people with disabilities are often not seen as people in need of empowerment, capacity building, and equal opportunities.

Cynthia Hansen, head of the Adecco Group Foundation — which runs an athlete career program worldwide to enable people with and without disabilities to transition from the world of sport into the world of work — said people with disabilities should be viewed as another pool of talent, “rather than something that’s just a tick-box exercise.”

While such attitudes and prevailing misconceptions can often act as barriers to employment, Casson believes many employers also worry that they aren’t well-equipped to offer adequate support.

“People just presume that they wouldn't be able to support people with disabilities in the workplace,” he said. “Disability is such a varied thing that, especially for people with invisible disabilities, it's such a minefield for people to get over, whereas actually there’s a lot of pros to having a diverse workforce.”

A man with a disability. Photo by: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND

Benefits of a disability-inclusive workforce

According to research from the Chicago Lighthouse, a social service organization in the U.S., people with disabilities are likely to have more longevity in their job roles. Research also shows that people with disabilities are less likely to take sick days, and have comparable or better safety records. 

Many benefits of employing people with disabilities remain unknown, with the result that employment rates remain low regardless of sector or geography. The World Bank’s McClain-Nhlapo said that the issue was global rather than specific to a cluster of countries.

Addressing access issues might be a good place to start. Many workplaces view having a ramp as being disability-inclusive, Casson explained, but there are other workplace tools that can benefit an entire workforce, rather than singling out those with a disability.

“The beauty of that is that most people with disabilities will tell you what their needs are, and that’s something that can be worked out together.”

— Charlotte Vuyiswa McClain-Nhlapo, global disability adviser in the Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice of the World Bank

“Automatic doors were brought in to support wheelchair users whereas now they are the norm. For people who have a visual impairment, there is screen configuration and lights. That might be crucial for someone with a visual impairment, whereas it also helps others sleep better at night because we don’t have the glare,” Casson explained.

“I think everyone is on their own journey through inclusion, but it needs to move from CSR into HR — that’s the tipping point to try and get over. It isn’t a charitable thing, it’s something you could really benefit from as a business,” he said.

How to make workplaces more disability inclusive

It starts with the hiring process, Hansen said. Ensuring that roles are open to everyone, that applications are accessible for those with disabilities — even offering internships to young people with disabilities.

“Something we see across the board is unconscious bias and confirmation bias that's built into a lot of the hiring processes of companies,” Hansen said, adding that another barrier is compliance with existing laws to ensure accessible workplaces and that hiring practices are fair.

“In some countries or companies, [disclosing your disability] may be a detractor,” Hansen said, while others, such as Spain or Brazil, have requirements to fulfill in terms of hiring people with a disability.

Then it’s a question of ensuring that in-house attitudes are receptive to people with disabilities.

“It’s things like how to go into a room if you’re interviewing and feel more comfortable with a person with an impairment if you haven’t done it before,” Hansen said, adding that this can be done by inviting people with disabilities into offices to share their background and unique employee skills to make hiring managers, senior management, and colleagues see things differently.

McClain-Nhlapo also cited incorporating more workplace flexibility as a way to foster a more accessible workplace. Assistive technologies, remote working, and virtual meetings are all becoming more commonplace, and all help to provide a more inclusive environment.

“This notion that people have to ... come into an office or space to work is outdated,” she said. “For persons with disabilities, it’s important for them, for companies, and for development partners to think how people with disabilities can contribute in different ways from different places.”

Casson agreed to the benefits of technology in the workplace and the support it can give anyone, regardless of disability. How Do I? enables employers in the United Kingdom to create their own video guides that can be shared across an organization to provide support to the point needed. Originally a tool for people with learning disabilities providing “how to” guides for tasks such as making a cup of tea or brushing teeth, the app has evolved into a way of making workplaces more accessible.

“Some workplaces using the app are completely and solely focused on supporting people with learning disabilities get into work, and others are employers using it as a tool for everybody — which is our aim because it then destigmatizes disability,” Casson said. The app is available to everyone, he added, which means individuals can opt to use it every day or much less frequently depending on their needs.

Other technologies that can accommodate those with a disability and benefit the workforce overall include screen readers, lever door handles, screen magnification programs, and telephone amplifiers.

Finally, ensuring there is a pathway for promotion is critical, McClain-Nhlapo said, adding that in many places there’s no expectation for people with disabilities to move on to the next level in their careers.

Regardless of recommendations, she explained that no workplace has to have it “perfect” before actively including people with disabilities.

“I think the approach should be: ‘we are committed to this, we want to increase our workforce, we want to have a more diverse workforce, we want a workforce that reflects the demographics of wherever we are, so let’s work on this together,’” McClain-Nhlapo said. “And the beauty of that is that most people with disabilities will tell you what their needs are, and that’s something that can be worked out together.”

For more coverage on creating a disability-inclusive world, visit the Development Enabled series here.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.