Overcoming prejudice in the workplace is an important step towards ensuring the fair treatment of all employees.
One of the greatest barriers to the employment of people with disabilities is not the physical access to business premises (although that remains a major issue), it’s attitude.
Fear, ignorance and stereotypical views contribute to the discrimination against people with disabilities. Very often, the discrimination is not intentional; it stems from ignorance, rather than malice.
As part of its “Promoting the Right to Work of People with Disabilities”, the South African Human Rights Commission has published an excellent Toolkit for the Private Sector to assist organisations to fully integrate people with disabilities in the workplace.
This document should be compulsory reading for organisations wanting to build inclusive workplaces with full participation by people with disabilities, as well as by people with disabilities wanting to reach their full potential in their careers. The full toolkit is available on the SAHRC’s website (www.sahrc.org.za).
SAE4D agrees with the SAHRC’s belief that even the best and most progressive affirmative action policy within an organisation will only be successful if prejudices and unconscious bias are addressed first.
Any strategies aimed at addressing issues of disability inclusion and diversity must necessarily include all stakeholders who affect the culture and functioning of a workplace, including the board of directors, management, line managers, supervisors, employees and service providers or suppliers as well as regulators or government authorities. By involving all stakeholders, an organisation stands a better chance of successfully incorporating disability-inclusive policies and practices in the daily operations and culture of the business.
Of course, employees with disabilities themselves should also be extensively involved in any process meant to benefit the company. They also need to provide input to the proposed ways to overcome common attitudinal, operational and other barriers standing in the way of their integration in the workplace.
Attitudinal barriers include, but are not limited to:
- Inappropriate focus: focusing on a person’s disability rather than abilities.
- Superiority complex: seeing or perceiving an employee with disability as a “second-class citizen” and therefore not deserving of equal rights.
- Pity syndrome: feeling sorry for an employee with a disability and consequently adopting a patronising attitude.
- Unfounded fear: being afraid of offending an employee with a disability by doing or saying the wrong thing and thus avoiding them.
- Diminished expectations: tending to regard an employee with a disability as being incapable of meeting job requirements.
- Stereotypical views: seeing disability as implying stupidity or slowness. People with disabilities are perceived to be able to do only basic, unskilled jobs.
- The “backlash effect”: believing that an employee with a disability receives an unfair advantage because of their disability.
- Assumed drop in productivity: generally assuming that people with a disability require more support in the workplace, which will reduce the productivity of other employees.
The best remedy is to encourage people with and without disabilities to mingle as colleagues.
Dr Jerry Gule is chairman of South African Employers for Disability (SAE4D) and general manager: Total Marketing Services Competency Centre (Pty) Ltd.