Disability Inclusion at Work | EAPA-SA

South Africa has about 3 million people living with disabilities, equating to about 7.5% of the country’s population. Will 2021 be the year that disability inclusion finally takes hold in the workplace? Today, more companies understand the value of meeting their employees’ needs – they have seen the benefits of broader employee accommodation and it’s taken remaining productive throughout the pandemic for the lesson to land. COVID-19 has brought the issue of individual needs and disabilities out into the open so that an increasing number of employees feel that asking for support is a “safer” conversation to have with their employer. People with and without disabilities have started to have higher expectations around accommodations and inclusion.

What is disability inclusion?

Disability inclusion means understanding the relationship between the way people function and how they participate in society, and making sure everybody has the same opportunities to participate in every aspect of life to the best of their abilities and desires. Disability inclusion at work is about more than hiring people with disabilities. An inclusive workplace values all employees for their strengths. It offers employees with disabilities, whether these are visible or invisible, an equal opportunity to succeed, to learn, to be compensated fairly, and to advance.

“Disability inclusion at work is about more than hiring people with disabilities.”

Why is disability inclusion so important?

More and more, employees care about their workplace culture and believe it is important to help them thrive at work. Companies with strong disability inclusion programmes have better access to talent and better employee retention. They typically have the tools they need to help their employees thrive.

“Companies with strong disability inclusion programmes have better access to talent and better employee retention.”

  • Disability inclusion is a critical part of employee support. Without disability inclusion, your business isn’t doing all it can to support its current employees
  • Disability inclusion will strengthen your workforce
    • Employees are looking for diverse, inclusive workplaces
    • Inclusion builds morale and helps all employees do their best work
  • Inclusive practices not only support people with disabilities. Inclusion creates a more accepting and supportive workplace for all employees
  • Disability inclusion is crucial to an organisation’s hiring process. People with disabilities represent a significant talent pool and companies that are not proactive about disability inclusion are losing out on qualified talent.


What are the key obstacles to disability inclusion in the workplace?

  • Attitudinal barriers

Attitudinal barriers result in stigmatisation and discrimination, which denies people with disabilities their dignity and potential and are one of the greatest obstacles to their achieving equality of opportunity and social integration.

  • Environmental barriers

Inaccessible environments create disability by creating barriers to participation and inclusion.

  • Institutional barriers

Institutional barriers include many laws, policies, strategies or practices that discriminate against people with disabilities.

  • Lack of knowledge

Lack of knowledge about best practices has kept companies from talking about disability inclusion. And, fearing stigma or retaliation, workers often don’t ask for the support they need. But during the pandemic, many employees have disclosed a disability for the first time. Some have conditions that put them at greater risk from COVID-19. Others have acquired a new disability because of COVID-19. And some have mental health or other conditions that are impacted by the pandemic.

Source: https://medium.com/understood-org/its-the-age-of-accommodations-will-disability-inclusion-take-off-in-2021-bf6143b2a9f4

“Lack of knowledge about best practices has kept companies from talking about disability inclusion.”

  • Inaccurate concerns over cost and difficulty

One of the most common reasons given for not including people with disabilities is perceived cost


In what ways may an employee be disabled?


Physical Disability

Examples: Cerebral Palsy, Spina Bifida, Muscular Dystrophy and heart defects

A physical disability encompasses any impairment that limits an individual’s mobility. Physical disabilities can affect the function of limbs or the entire body. 

Sensory Disabilities

Examples of sensory disability include:

  • Visual impairment – uncorrectable vision loss resulting from disease, trauma, congenital or degenerative conditions
  • Hearing Impairment where individuals have difficulties perceiving sound frequencies typically heard by most people.

Sensory disabilities involve the impairment of one or more of the body’s senses. 

Olfactory and Gustatory Impairment

Sensory disabilities include olfactory and gustatory impairment, or a loss of smell and taste.

Somatosensory Impairment

Somatosensation refers to the physical sensations arising from the epidermis or skin. These physical sensations enable people to feel and localise touch, perceive temperature changes and identify objects through touch.

Balance Disorder

A balance disorder causes an individual to feel unsteady while standing or walking. Individuals with a balance disorder experience symptoms of feeling woozy, giddy, spinning, or floating.

Intellectual Disability

Intellectual disabilities refer to a broad range of disorders affecting the ability to comprehend processed information. Intellectual disabilities, commonly known as cognitive disabilities and mental retardation, can manifest in any age group. 

Mental Health and Emotional Disabilities

A mental illness, or psychological disorder, imposes subjective distress that may reflect in an individual’s behaviour. Mentally ill individuals can display abnormal development that falls outside of cultural norms.

Developmental Disability

Developmental disabilities, or birth defects impeding the growth and development of a single or multiple parts of the human body, impact the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system. Individuals with developmental disabilities may exhibit behavioural problems, convulsions, inability to move, and communication difficulties.

Hidden Disabilities

Examples: AIDS/HIV, Anxiety Disorders, Arthritis, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorders, Bipolar Disorder and brain injury

Invisible disabilities refer to debilitating conditions that do not produce observable symptoms. Disabled individuals who suffer from invisible disabilities experience internal symptoms, such as weakness, fatigue, dizziness, pain, cognitive dysfunctions, and learning difficulties.

Source: https://www.doctordisability.com/disability-types/ 


What are some practical workplace accommodations? 

Keep in mind that every person and environment is different. Input and feedback from your employees will be key to creating the most effective accommodations for your employees and workplace.

  • Modified hours or days or reduced work hours
  • Modified or different duties
  • Special chairs or back support
  • Walking sticks or walkers
  • Mobility scooters
  • Modified or ergonomic workstations
  • Working from home
  • Computers, laptops or tablets with specialised software
  • Human support
  • Adapted or accessible parking
  • Technical aids
  • Accessible elevators
  • Handrails, ramps, widened doorways or hallways
  • Communication aids
  • Adapted restrooms
  • Specialised transportation


Behavioural for tips management and employees to establish a disability-inclusive environment

After only 30 seconds of meeting someone, a long-lasting impression is created. Employees practicing appropriate etiquette and behaviour toward fellow disabled employees will reinforce disability inclusion in the workplace. Here are some behavioural tips:

  • Don’t assume! Ask if an employee would like any help before providing it
  • Speak directly to the person with disability and not to the interpreter or companion next to them 
  • Make appropriate eye contact
  • Be mindful and adjust your eye and body level. It can be quite unwelcoming or uncomfortable having to look up to a person during an entire conversation 
  • Use a normal tone of voice. Address the disabled person the same way you would talk to anyone
  • Ask the person you are speaking with to see how they would like to be described
  • There is no need to patronise people with disabilities or imply that they are courageous or special. Some may find it offensive as they are just living their everyday life
  • Respect the personal space around mobility devices. Wheelchairs can be considered as an extension of someone’s body. So touching the wheelchair is like touching someone’s body. Please don’t pet or distract the guide dog. They are on duty
  • Use positive and respectful language that fosters inclusive thinking and behaviours
  • Do not refer a person with disability as “the patient” unless they are under medical care
  • See if you may need to adjust camera angles, lighting or sound in meetings


What are the ways in which disabled employees can be better included by management?

  • Proactively removing barriers: Instead of waiting for employees to run into barriers, employers can start looking for opportunities to improve accessibility for everyone. For example, they might provide training materials in multiple formats (video, text, audio).
  • Encouraging communication: Honest communication about disability and accommodations helps create inclusive workplaces where people feel valued and heard. Organisations can make a point of asking employees what they need to do their work and will really listen to the answers.
  • Leading by example: More and more, leaders within companies should feel comfortable talking about their own disabilities at work. In this way they will support managers and HR representatives to lead conversations around accommodations, disability, and inclusion.

Disability awareness and inclusion cannot be fragmented and need-based; it must be universal, optimal, and holistic. It is not optional or a choice, but a commitment. Ultimately, awareness and education are key to a shift in perceptions and understanding around disability inclusion, because despite firm policies it is good practices and a conscious effort to transform to being inclusive that will make organisations and workplaces in South Africa more disability-inclusive in 2021.


  1. https://medium.com/understood-org/its-the-age-of-accommodations-will-disability-inclusion-take-off-in-2021-bf6143b2a9f4 
  2. https://www.doctordisability.com/disability-types/ 
  3. https://www.understood.org/articles/en/disability-inclusion-at-work 
  4. https://diversity.social/disability/ 


Photo by Ann H from Pexels

“Disability awareness and inclusion cannot be fragmented and need-based; it must be universal, optimal, and holistic.”