The U.S. Chamber of Commerce stated the following in their welcome letter attached to a document titled, Leading Practices on Disability Inclusion, “Successful businesses recognize that incorporating disability in all diversity and inclusion practices positively impacts their companies’ bottom line. Corporate CEOs understand that it’s cost effective to recruit and retain the best talent regardless of disability.” This document goes on to feature well over a dozen US corporations’ mandate regarding employing staff with disabilities.1
There are on average 7.5% people living with a disability in South Africa. Considering South Africa’s skills shortage and the competitive marketplace, employers simply cannot ignore the market segment of the disabled community. While attitudes towards disabled people are steadily changing, many disabled employees still face attitudinal barriers from managers and colleagues who usually feel uncomfortable or awkward talking to them because of their disability. A fear of saying something wrong or coming across as patronising, are often the cause for people avoiding those with a disability.
Below, we’ve highlighted these barriers and highlighted how employers and co-workers should be coached to handle these barriers in order to make the office environment an accommodating and friendlier place for everyone.
Believing someone with a disability is given an unfair advantage because of his or her disability
Managers have a duty to ensure that they hold people with disabilities to the same standards as their co-workers, even though the means of accomplishing the tasks may vary from person to person.
Avoiding someone with a disability because of a belief that you may say something wrong
Think of how you interact with the rest of your co-workers who are from different cultural or religious backgrounds. Just as frequent encounters with these co-workers make it easy for you to chat to them, taking the time to get to know someone living with a disability will lessen the “How do I talk to her without saying something wrong” awkward vibe.
Thinking that a disabled colleague is exceptionally courageous for pursuing a career with their disability
People living with a disability are not looking for recognition or accolades for having the ability to perform their day-to-day duties. They have simply learnt to live with their disability and adapt to their work environment by using their skills and knowledge, just like how you’ve adapted to being short, tall, strong, and brunette, and so on.
Thinking that you need to help a disabled person with their task because of a belief that they are incapable of accomplishing them on their own.
The fact is people living with disabilities are as capable of completing their tasks as those living without any disabilities. We see it every day. A quadriplegic who can drive a car, a blind man who can tell the time, a deaf person you can play soccer, you name it.
Feeling sorry for someone with a disability which often leads to patronising attitudes.
People with a disability generally don’t want pity or charity, but instead, prefer to be treated and given equal opportunities to earn their own way and live independently.
Negative attitudes towards the disabled are not the only barriers disabled people usually deal with. On the other side of the spectrum are positive attitudes. For instance, you may believe that because someone is blind he or she must have a greater sense of smell and hearing, or that someone in a wheelchair must be a great Paralympic. Not only does this attitude belittle someone’s abilities, but it often sets standards that are either too high or low for the individual who in essence, is human like you.
Breaking down attitudinal barriers
Unlike physical and systematic barriers, attitudinal barriers usually lead to illegal discrimination which cannot be easily overcome through the law. To eradicate these barriers, the best remedy is to familiarize yourself with people living with disabilities. Over time, mingling with a disabled co-worker, say at the end-year function or during coffee breaks, will allow you to build a comfortable and respectful friendship with him or her.
Physical barriers in the workplace
Section “S” of the National Buildings Regulations and Buildings Act sets minimum requirements that every building, including the office space, should meet. Once you’ve hired a disabled employee, every effort should be taken to ensure that the disabled person is reasonably accommodated.
If you cannot provide a work environment that caters for those living with a disability, you need to prove to the person living with the disability and those without, that the facility cannot accommodate them. However, if a building or work station is designed correctly, it is very possible to make the office a safe, comfortable and a convenient work environment for all people.
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