Into the Working Lives of People with Disabilities

Into the Working Lives of People with Disabilities: Including people with disabilities as bringers of value to both society and the economy is essential. But despite laws, results have been poor. Dr Armand Bam, Stellenbosch University Business School, and Professor Linda Ronnie, UCT School of Management Studies, explore the reasons why to provide a practical blueprint for effective disability inclusion strategy.

Into the Working Lives of People with Disabilities, by Tom Gamble, Armand Bam, Linda Ronnie. Related research: Inclusion at the Workplace: An Exploratory Study of People with Disabilities in South Africa, Armand Bam and Linda Ronnie: International Journal of Disability Management (2020), 15, e6, 1–9

Including people with disabilities as bringers of value to both society and the economy is essential. But despite laws, results have been poor. Dr Armand Bam, Stellenbosch University Business School, and Professor Linda Ronnie, UCT School of Management Studies, explore the reasons why to provide a practical blueprint for effective disability inclusion strategy.  

Getting people with disabilities (PWD) into employment is one of the hotter social impact topics on the agendas of governments and corporations alike in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hope carried by the wish for the “New Normal”, the backdrop of the UN SDGs and movements such as #buildbackbetter, has added weight to the issue.

Much legislation has already been passed in many developed and emerging economies providing companies with frameworks and guidelines for tackling the challenge. However, setting the rules of the game and actually complying with them has proven difficult to do. And in many respects, the results have failed to reach the expectations and needs of the disabled community, as unemployment within this group rises.

A research study carried out by Dr Armand Bam, Stellenbosch University Business School, and Professor Linda Ronnie, UCT School of Management Studies, sets out to explore the case of South Africa and hits upon findings that can well-serve the rest of the world in a practical way when setting up and implementing initiatives for the employment of people with disabilities. 

Inclusion and Disillusion

People with disabilities - Including people with disabilities as bringers of value to both society and the economy is essential. But despite laws, results have been poor. Dr Armand Bam, Stellenbosch University Business School, and Professor Linda Ronnie, UCT School of Management Studies, explore the reasons why to provide a practical blueprint for effective disability inclusion strategy.

Since the ending of apartheid in the early 1990s, South Africa has had a solid record of providing regulations and guidelines for the inclusion of its disabled population into the workplace. Key initiatives include the 1998 Employment Equity Act 55 and the 2017 “TAG” (Technical Assistance Guidelines on the Employment of People with Disabilities), a blueprint for both employers and employees for promoting equal opportunities and fair treatment at work.

But studies and impact assessments since then, assert Bam and Ronnie, have pointed towards companies using law and codes of good practice essentially for promoting equality and fighting unfair and racial discrimination at work rather than endorsing the moral and social necessity for employing people with disabilities. Indeed, when developing their HR policies, a large number of employers fail to consider the TAG which ultimately leads to a negative impact on disabled people. Prejudice has been cited as one of the factors. Also the fact that organisations tend to struggle with adapting and changing beliefs and attitudes on the subject of disability that have dug in deep over time and throughout every level of their organisations.

Dr Bam and Prof. Ronnie contend that employers and employees alike can only mutually benefit from taking on people with disabilities if companies are encouraged to rethink their definition of inclusion in terms of working experiences and integration rather than in numbers and ticks in compliance with the law. For them, it is essential to go into the fine grain of the matter – the workplace and the employees themselves – in order to understand the challenges people with disabilities face.

As such, through a series of interviews and case studies, Bam and Ronnie were able to study the reality of the issue in the field. Four areas for improvement resulted and a number of practical recommendations that could ultimately help employers transform their organisations from PWD elusive to truly inclusive. 

A good first impression can work wonders: The induction stage

People with disabilities - Into the Working Lives of People with Disabilities: Including people with disabilities as bringers of value to both society and the economy is essential. But despite laws, results have been poor. Dr Armand Bam, Stellenbosch University Business School, and Professor Linda Ronnie, UCT School of Management Studies, explore the reasons why to provide a practical blueprint for effective disability inclusion strategy.

From entering a shop to taking a plane, first impressions are always pivotal in shaping our experience and our judgements. The same goes for people with disabilities and the onboarding process. These first impressions may include the perception of an employers’ empathy toward impaired employees – what alterations to the physical environment, what equipment and what assistive technology has been put into place to facilitate the daily movement and working conditions for the disabled worker. If digital screens are the norm for relaying information within the workplace and they carry no voice-over or feature no braille, then if you’re sight-impaired it’s likely to generate a shrug and a sigh of frustration rather than one of contentment. If you’re in a wheelchair and the coffee machine is located in a sunken alcove accessible only by a flight of steps, then most probably you’ll go thirsty before wanting to ask for a third time if a co-worker can lend a hand and bring you a cup.    

Information sessions and induction workshops also prove a matter for debate among employees with disabilities. Bam and Ronnie’s survey found that participants’ level of satisfaction and comfort rose when such initiatives were informal in nature. This gave disabled newbies the opportunity to offer spontaneous responses rather than listen to an expert’s – often outsourced – opinion. Indeed, these generic induction initiatives, often featuring an inclusion awareness dimension to them, appeared rehearsed and as such were seen as insincere by the participants who were experiencing the real-time complexities of onboarding a new working environment. In some cases, PWD respondents had the feeling that the workshops and information sessions were more aimed at calming the apprehension of the non-disabled employees than taking things from a truly PWD perspective.       

With feedback varying from welcoming to alienating, the initial induction experiences invariably had a lasting negative or positive impact on PWD employees’ integration in the company.  

Your Disability: To tell or not to tell?  

A tricky question that hinges on values and emotions, perspectives and sensitivity. In terms of inclusion, disclosing one’s disability does not necessarily guarantee an immediate end to discrimination. However, Bam and Ronnie found that having a degree of control over the way this information is provided does offer a positive opportunity for disabled employees to address any stereotypes their colleagues might hold. On the other hand, when the employer chose to inform their staff without the consent of disabled employees, a feeling of betrayal naturally ensued.

Interestingly, deciding to not inform coworkers on impairments enabled disabled employees – especially those whose disabilities were hard to spot – to interact normally with others on a same level. But when management chose to disclose their conditions(?), attitudes and relationships changed. This being said, the employment experience was found to be limited where partic­ipants chose to hide their disabilities for fear of rejection.

‘It is clear that the disclosure of their disability to co-workers was an aspect PWD wanted control over,’ state Dr Bam and Prof. Ronnie. ‘Where disclosure was imposed or occurred without their consent, participants felt a sense of vio­lation and discomfort.’

Us and Them: The struggle to appear ‘normal’

Into the Working Lives of People with Disabilities: Including people with disabilities as bringers of value to both society and the economy is essential. But despite laws, results have been poor. Dr Armand Bam, Stellenbosch University Business School, and Professor Linda Ronnie, UCT School of Management Studies, explore the reasons why to provide a practical blueprint for effective disability inclusion strategy.

When entering into any initial interaction and relationship, it is rare for people to focus on differences. To make the exchange work, we aim at finding things in common for the relationship to progress further – and these can include preferences, gestures, experiences and values. Imagine then, if difference were immediately made clear – almost like a staked out boundary that had to be overcome. Such a boundary exists for people with disabilities – from within themselves and their disability, and also from others who witness this impairment.

The study found that employees with disabilities attempted to deal with this by developing various ways to turn attention away from themselves and cause minimal disturbance among their non-impaired co-workers. Pride, self-esteem and determination were key motivators. Among the strategies was the tendency for PWDs to go beyond their physical capacities, preferring to doggedly keep on with the task at hand and alone – even if coworkers offered to help.

In short, wanting to be accepted by their managers and co-workers was a key criterion for assimilation into the company. And as such, employees with disabilities strove to be ‘normal’. Doing more became a personal expectation even if their managers did not require it. The effect was doubled for the ‘newly disabled’ who, having a previous experience of ‘normality’, found it hard to accept their departure from this ‘norm’ due to their handicap. ‘In effect,’ discern Bam and Ronnie, ‘two ‘normals’ were constructed by these participants: a normal in comparison to nondisabled people and a normal in relation to others with disabilities.’

Frustration and vulnerability

Many of the respondents in the survey found that they were spending extra time to do their job to keep up with deadlines and the performance of their non-disabled colleagues. This inevitably gave rise to frustration. Which in turn grew in intensity when they felt they were disadvantaged, or ill-equipped, and couldn’t compete. In some instances, management failed to understand the potential difficulties employees with disabilities could encounter when assigned work that took them out of the premises to different locations – travel, adapted facilities and the stress related to the change. This lack of resources and support, including the inclusion process itself, gave rise to an additional sense of vulnerability. The outcome of the two combined – frustration and vulnerability –often ended with the belief that the best option was to leave the company and seek employment elsewhere.

On the road to improvement

Into the Working Lives of People with Disabilities: Including people with disabilities as bringers of value to both society and the economy is essential. But despite laws, results have been poor. Dr Armand Bam, Stellenbosch University Business School, and Professor Linda Ronnie, UCT School of Management Studies, explore the reasons why to provide a practical blueprint for effective disability inclusion strategy.
Employing people with disabilities

Bam and Ronnie identify disabled employees’ main desire as being their smooth integration into their organisations. Indeed, positive early experiences within their companies made them feel included. Dr Bam and Prof. Ronnie advocate that a number of factors can help boost this first positive experience and have lasting effects throughout the employment period of the employee with disability. These include:

  • A first step of (re-)adjusting the values, atti­tudes and norms within the organisation to align with the commitment to offer an inclusive environment to people with disabilities.
  • Assess companypolicies, procedures and rules that encourage or discour­age attitudes towards PWD and duly adjust.
  • Ensure that the organisation sets up an effective process to hire, place and retain employees with disabilities.
  • Instil a corporate mindset that views every employee as having unique needs and implement a safe speak-up system. This will widen the notion of what it is to be ‘normal’ and included within the workplace.
  • Because companies themselves often lack the know-how, call in external expertise to audit and develop workplace design, including the design of office spaces and furnishings: these have a major impact on how employees with disabilities integrate into a company and how they perform their roles.
  • Create the post of disability cham­pion, ideally a member of senior management, who has a say on the Board and entrusted with developing disability inclusion and fairness in the company.
  • Give specific focus on the key role of the manager and their positive effect on PWD team members: provide managers’ training in inclusivity and specifically on working with disabled employees; adjust how managers can be incentivized and rewarded; soften or disuse competitive reward systems; adjust workloads according to capacities. 
  • Review the induction process, with managers actively involving PWD in shaping onboarding processes to more appropriately address PWD needs and develop more informed and durable inclusion practices.  
  • Encourage managers to engage early on with PWD and understand their needs prior to their arrival. This will contribute to disabled employees feeling more confident – as people and employees – and improve the chances of relational integration into their organisations.
  • Set up mentoring or buddy systems to help boost skills, relationship building, and to help eradicate prejudice and discrimination. 

The major finding of Bam and Ronnie’s study among people with disabilities is that the onboarding experience is critical in shaping how this population perceives its new company – and capital too in the employee’s decision to either make or break with the organisation. For Dr Bam and Prof. Ronnie, having a solid induction process is a win-win – it creates opportunities for new employees to gain insight into the company and for the company to learn much more about this group of employees and their needs. 

Getting it right and developing practical strategies for the inclusion of disabled people in organisations is essential. The post-pandemic context carries both hopes for an inclusive re-set, but also the threat of economic stagnation, unemployment, stress upon individual wellbeing and even national prosperity, assert Bam and Ronnie. To build a truly inclusive society, people with disabilities must be given a rightful place within the economy as bringers of value. This goes for South Africa – and it also goes for the wider beyond. 

Armand Bam and Linda Ronnie on CoBS Insights: People with disabilities
Armand Bam and Linda Ronnie

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The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.  

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