Declared by the United Nations in 1992, December 3rd is annually observed as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. As per the UN, “The observance of this day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilise support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. It also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the integration of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.”
With every year focusing on a unique theme for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the theme for 2021 is “Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world.”
In this story, we will learn how individual organisations are promoting sustainable inclusion and accessibility for PwD. Let’s first take a closer look at what individuals from the community seek and what factors contribute to social disability.
The social model of disability
While 67% of C-suite executives believe they’ve built a supportive workplace that enables their disabled employees to thrive with the right technology, environment and support, only 41% of employees with disabilities agree. Further, 76% of employees with disabilities and 80% of executives with disabilities are not fully open about their disabilities at work.
Research has found that for many people with disabilities, finding and sustaining work is a challenge. “Indeed, it has been estimated that in the United States (US), only one in three (34.9 percent) individuals with disabilities are employed compared to 76 percent of their counterparts without disabilities, and this disparity appears to be increasing over time,” the research noted. Canada indicates a better picture with the corresponding statistics being 49% vs 79% percent, with the European Union being close at 47.3% vs 66.9%.
According to a study on ‘Developing a Multilevel Scale to Assess Retention of Workers with Disabilities’, “Ever since legislation was passed to promote the rights and status of Persons with Disabilities (PwD) within the public sector, there has been widespread hope that the law will lead to the full integration of PwD in the labour market. However, the employment rate of PwD has continued to be lower than that of workers without disabilities. Even when employed, many are underemployed, working part-time, or underpaid.”
Responding to a survey, a 53-year-old UK-based employee with disability said that employers are missing a massive trick. “There are some seriously talented individuals who are just consigned to the scrapheap because employers don’t make necessary adaptations. They are missing out on these talents and these incredible people who can provide an amazing service for customers.”
Another 30-year-old Brazilian employee with a disability shared in the same survey: “Employers should have a healthier communication environment, which allows employees and workers to speak out without fear of reprisal. In the case of my employer, it was precisely this fear of reprisal that prevented me from talking about the situation.
The corporate speak
An Accenture report recently found that 78% of executives believe their organisations will be able to leverage Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions to address barriers to disability inclusion over the next three years, yet just 32% report that they have inclusive design principles in place to support the development of fair and unbiased AI solutions.
With unbiased AI solutions still a distant reality for all, here is what organisations are currently doing to make themselves more inclusive and accessible for people with disabilities.
Sudeep Ralhan, VP People, Walmart Global Tech India:
“Over the last year, we accelerated our efforts on continuous awareness and education, with better outreach through our logo & Cheer in Braille and American Sign Language, while grooming in-house sign language champions. We expanded our benefits to include insurance cover for treatment of accidents and therapy for acquired disabilities, and have provided all forms of reasonable accommodations like ergonomic workstations and assistive tech to help associates work from the comfort of their homes effortlessly. As we move ahead, all of these efforts will continue even as we think more deeply about enabling caregivers. The future holds great potential to continue to leverage technological innovations to bridge gaps, bring all of us closer and foster equity.”
Ira Gupta, Head of Human Resources, India at Microsoft
“With hybrid work and living, persons with disabilities will need access to assistive technology now more than ever. It is embedded by-design into Microsoft’s DNA —including our culture, our hiring practices, systems, and products. Designing for inclusivity not only opens up our products and services to more people, it also reflects how people really are. We are building a scalable system that brings the voice of people with disabilities into our company, better understands how they use our products and provides feedback to engineers to make our tools more accessible. While our journey is by no means complete, we stay deeply committed to prioritizing accessibility as a company, to truly empower people with disabilities unlock their full potential at work and in daily life.”
Lakshmi C, Managing Director and Lead - Human Resources, Accenture India
“Disability inclusion sensitisation and evangelisation are key priorities for us. We have special training sessions for our recruitment teams, and managers and team members of persons with disabilities to equip them with disability etiquette training, experiential learning sessions, assistive technology training programs, etc. Each of our businesses has a dedicated Persons with Disabilities (PwD) recruitment team and we adopt a focused hiring approach by partnering with specialized external organisations, participating in niche job fairs and conferences, and a robust employee referral program for Persons with Disabilities hiring. We also have an inclusive, six-month long Inclusive Internship program that aims to build a skilled talent pool of persons with disabilities by providing the interns on-the-job learning opportunities that augment their overall work experience, hone workplace skills and build networks that will prove useful throughout their career.
In our journey to support our persons with disabilities, technology has been a huge enabler for us. Our Disability Adjustment Request platform helps our people to raise reasonable accommodation requirements including assistive technologies and ergonomic adjustments. Our Accessibility Centre of Excellence in India helps them choose the right kind of enablement devices possible after experiencing them virtually. Above all, each of our web and technology applications are built such that they are completely accessible for persons with disabilities."
Tina Vinod, Global Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Thoughtworks:
“Accessible workplaces, both digital and physical, continue to be few and far between for persons with disabilities in India. Thoughtworks in India rolled out the ‘Equal Opportunity, Non-discrimination and Anti-harassment at the workplace Policy’ this year, with specific appendices that align to the Right of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act 2016, that promotes and protects the dignity and rights of persons with disabilities across educational, social, legal, economic, cultural, and political spaces. While the RPWD Act has defined reasonable accommodation only for ‘persons with disabilities’, we broadened its application to include persons without disabilities who have specific limitations or temporary impairment. When it comes to reasonable accommodation, we ensure the definition of the workplace covers both physical and virtual spaces. The policy includes being provided with assistive devices as well as accessibility in both physical and virtual/remote workspaces.
Devesh Amin, Director, Workforce Technology and Executive sponsor of the Intuit Abilities Network
“Rapid advancements in assistive technology devices and emerging technologies across industries, and thinking with a ‘functionality for all’ mindset will make all the difference and can help people with disabilities participate actively in the workplace by creating an accessible and inclusive environment. We are making conscious efforts to make our products and experiences open to everyone, regardless of education level, physical, sensory, or cognitive ability, gender, or other attributes— when we create accessible products, we make things better for everyone, with increased access, reduced friction, and smoother experiences.”
Shilpa Sinha Harish, Sr. Vice President - Global Head - Corporate Communications, CSR and D&I, HGS
“As part of our diversity inclusion program, we have launched several initiatives to create an inclusive and accessible workplace. These include improving physical and digital infrastructure through measures such as providing reasonable accommodation, making all website/ portals/ applications digitally accessible, access to wheelchairs for anyone who can’t afford it, and accessible rest-rooms, while driving sensitisation amongst all employees to educate our people and address bias. We have also worked on more inclusive policies and processes. An example is making our career portal completely accessible for candidates with disabilities. This has allowed us to receive applications from all candidates, irrespective of disabilities. We further systematise the process through appropriate assessment and selection procedures and job fitment exercise to ensure discrimination free recruitment and selection process.”
Srikanth Karra, Chief Human Resource Officer, Mphasis
“During the pandemic, we set up a dedicated COVID-19 helpline number to address the challenges and queries of all employees with extended support on need basis for employees with disabilities. Mphasis has also embedded this inclusive culture in its rewards and recognitions, wherein we reward allyship and inclusive managers who promote diversity in their teams. Moreover, Mphasis conducts a special training programme which is designed and executed from an Inclusion & Diversity stand point, which includes recruiter sensitisation training for hiring of persons with disability. Our entry criteria is fairly simple, if the candidate is qualified they will get hired as we heavily invest in OJT – On the Job Training.
Our list of most important and most used applications and all future information technology tools including intranets, software, applications, tools, training programs and databases is identified and made compliant with WCAG 2.0 guidelines (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). All internal communication is made available in accessible formats to all employees with disabilities. Proactive measures are being undertaken in a phased manner to eliminate physical and technological workplace barriers to ensure that persons with disabilities, like everyone else, are able to participate in meetings, conferences, workshops, seminars and other events. Reasonable accommodation is provided to eligible persons with disabilities whenever directly related to performing essential functions of the job or to enjoy equal benefits of employment. Our Code of Business Conduct also outlines a zero tolerance for discrimination, harassment, victimization or bullying through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness or stereotyping.”
The road to sustainable inclusion is certainly long. However, what’s crucial is that ongoing efforts are authentic, meaningful and create the right ecosystem that truly enables this talent pool. There is a need to shift gears from fueling the existing social model of disability and approaching accessibility and inclusion with an innovative outlook. Only then can solutions and organisations be truly inclusive and impactful.