Making special learnership arrangements in the workplace for people with a disability might not be as helpful as you might expect
South African Employers for Disability recently held a workshop where delegates examined the issues of transformation, diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
There were some fascinating inputs, but one in particular got me thinking. One of the speakers questioned whether establishing special programmes to promote the employment and advancement of people with disabilities is the right thing to do. The speaker – a representative of the human resources department at one of South Africa’s largest enterprises – told the story of how their organisation went about offering learnerships specifically for people with disabilities.
The company made a concerted effort to identify young people with disabilities who they believed would not only benefit from a learnership, but could ultimately be offered permanent employment and groomed for more senior positions.
The group of learners with disabilities was assembled, and were put through the company’s standard learnership programme, with provision made for the different types of accommodation each member of the learnership group required.
They became a tightly knit group and close friendships developed. They did everything together – from eating lunch in the canteen to attending staff functions. But they did not integrate with their colleagues. Wherever they went in the organisation, they were immediately identified as “the group of disabled learners”. They were seen as “special” or different. When they were away from their group, they felt isolated – and their colleagues felt uncomfortable around them. Few of the learners from that group stayed in the company afterwards.
Since then, the company has not run a learnership programme (or any other development or training programme) exclusively for people with disabilities. However, it ensures that every learnership group includes people with disabilities. It is now integration from the get-go.
“Our goal is to promote diversity in our workplace. We have learned that dealing with diversity is not effective when certain groups are treated as special or different. Integration and inclusion in the workplace proceeds far more smoothly and naturally when the differences between the various types of individuals are not allowed to become the focus of their interaction,” the speaker said.
Since integrating its learnership programme, the company has found that supervisors, line managers and ordinary workers throughout the organisation have started to change their attitudes about the integration of people with disabilities.
Is this company’s experience unusual? Or do you think people with disabilities should be treated as special within the workplace? If you have been involved with exclusive programmes for people with disabilities, what has been your experience?
Dr Jerry Gule is the chairman of South African Employers for Disability (SAE4D). email: email@example.com