Reality Check: What’s stopping companies from hiring PwDs?

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It’s been a year since the law on protection and prohibition of discrimination of the disabled came into effect. HRKatha finds out what’s holding companies to be truly inclusive. Is it willingness, infrastructure or just a mindset? 

In a move to make the workforce inclusive, Metro Cash & Carry India has recently recruited 28 differently-abled (mute and hearing impaired) people at its Hyderabad outlet. The Company further aims to increase this number not only in the city, but across India.

It is not the only company to hire persons with disability (PWD), as public- and private-sector companies are actively hiring disabled people as part of their human resources policy of being an equal opportunity employer and promoting diversity in the workplace.

Last year, the law on protection and prohibition of discrimination of the disabled came into effect from June 15, 2017. Under the Equal Opportunity Policy, companies need to take certain steps to make their organisations truly inclusive. From registering the Equal Opportunity Policy with the State Commissioner or Central Commissioner, establishments have to provide for facilities, benefits and accessible environment for the disabled.

But what is the key to mainstreaming PWD and inclusion? What are the business benefits for companies in hiring differently-abled employees?

Finding sense in inclusivity
One of the many benefits is access to a wider pool of potential employees, especially in sectors where the attrition rate is high, such as hospitality or retail. Further, the engagement levels of all employees is high, as there is a positive culture of grooming those previously excluded, by training and enabling them to be contributing members of the society.

Rajesh Padmanabhan

Most employers face problems when it comes to voluntary disclosure by employees about belonging to that category. There are reservations and apprehensions on the applicant side as well. Similarly, companies also need to have a mature outlook on this. The shift has to happen on both sides.

From a customer perspective also, the inclusion policy has a very positive effect and helps in building customer trial, loyalty and recommendation. “In fact, sometimes, customers can become brand ambassadors by sharing their feedback with other customers and friends and family,” says Aradhana Lal, vice president-brand, communications and sustainability initiatives, Lemon Tree Hotels.

There has been a visible change and organisations are forthcoming with employing PWDs. However, not many companies in India hire employees directly but conduct trainings and offer internships. And there cannot be a specific rulebook or a policy forced upon organisations. To drive a truly inclusive workplace, organisations have to be empathetic and caring, where managers are liberal on their outlook, believes CHROs.

Barriers to implementation
Mostly, it is about the mindset and lack of awareness when it comes to employing PWDs.

“One of the biggest challenges is lack of awareness. There has to be more awareness about how companies can hire such employees, who can be more productive as well as an asset to the organisation. Leaders need to be more ‘includable’ or have the ability to include differently-abled employees,” emphasises Shanti Raghavan, founder, Enable India, an NGO working with companies on creating opportunities.

Also, there is a mismatch between demand and supply of candidates with disability for organisations. “We have faced issues in getting differently-abled talent for the hospitality sector, especially in the vicinity of our hotels, because one can’t hire people living 10 km away. At times, even aspirations of the candidates are not in sync with the industry. The other problem is that inclusion and mainstreaming of PWD is largely absent at the education and vocational skill levels, and opportunities for them are limited. Hence, we find that these candidates are not work ready and need pre-training before they can be a part of our employee base,” says Lal.

Shanti Raghavan

One of the biggest challenges is lack of awareness. There has to be more awareness about how companies can hire such employees, who can be more productive as well as an asset to the organisation. Leaders need to be more ‘includable’ or have the ability to include differently-abled employees.

Even candidates are mostly unaware of opportunities and companies to apply to. “Most employers face problems when it comes to voluntary disclosure by employees about belonging to that category. There are reservations and apprehensions on the applicant side as well. Similarly, companies also need to have a mature outlook on this. The shift has to happen on both sides,” says Rajesh Padmanabhan, director & group CHRO, Welspun Group.

It is important to align the entire workplace (in a company) to each disability and sensitise all employees about how to communicate with colleagues who are differently abled, for example, teaching employees Indian Sign Language (ISL) to be able to speak with deaf colleagues with hearing impairment.

Another biggest barrier is lack of requisite infrastructure — whether its ramps in the campus, special braille elevators, technology, accessible bathrooms, furniture, braille technology- enabled computers, and so on. “All this requires huge investments, and often organisations fall into the dilemma of making a business case / justification for this investment, given the few roles which can be taken up by such candidates,” says an HR expert.

However, creating infrastructure is to do more with intent or rather, cost. This is because most infrastructures could be equally beneficial for a normal workforce, feels Raghavan.

Prarthana Kaul

There has to be a retention strategy for evaluating the experiences to make the system more inclusive. Another important aspect is to create employee-engagement programmes for PWDs to ensure growth.

Often, due to the lack of requisite infrastructure and technology in our education system, these candidates are unable to proceed beyond graduation, and hence, are not well educated. Therefore, their skills are not up to the level required by corporate jobs.

The collaboration with NGOs is also challenging as each one works on different disabilities and mostly in one or two cities. Lal suggests that better partnerships between NGOs can help the cause, by giving companies the option of candidates from across disability types and geographies.

There are teams that often feel that having members with disability may lead to larger turn-around-times (TAT), dip in productivity levels and of course, increase in investments to provide them the required assistance.

Mission 1000 is a campaign launched last year, where 25 leaders from corporates, spanning 11 sectors have signed up. The campaign focuses on inclusive employment as mandated in the government initiative ‘inclusive India’.

The campaign is aimed to impact a 1000 lives—of people with developmental, severe and multiple disabilities, as well as the society at large. It has been able to generate 491 opportunities, ranging from skilling to livelihoods and sensitised 3539 employees (lives) to build an environment of inclusion within the company.

Making a case for PWDs
There has to be a well-thought-out plan before any company hires PWDs. First, companies have to sensitise other workforces about hiring PWDs, where they might have to teach sign language to team members to enable communication. Then, companies also have to ensure workplace inclusion, where desired infrastructure is a requisite. It is equally important to put in place the emergency preparedness document for all kinds of disabilities, which is similar to any other learning and development initiative. “There has to be a retention strategy for evaluating the experiences to make the system more inclusive. Another important aspect is to create employee-engagement programmes for PWDs to ensure growth,” says Prarthana Kaul, co-founder, Giftabled.

Aradhana Lal

We have faced issues in getting differently-abled talent for the hospitality sector, especially in the vicinity of our hotels, because one can’t hire people living 10 km away. At times, even aspirations of the candidates are not in sync with the industry. The other problem is that inclusion and mainstreaming of PWD is largely absent at the education and vocational skill levels, and opportunities for them are limited. Hence, we find that these candidates are not work ready and need pre-training before they can be a part of our employee base.

In fact, sometimes, customers can become brand ambassadors by sharing their feedback with other customers and friends and familyThe first step is to analyse the jobs or map candidates to available jobs. This helps to understand the exact nature of the tasks involved in the jobs, and gives a clear picture as to how the same tasks can be accomplished by a person with a specific disability. It also provides inputs for forthcoming jobs with the appropriate workplace solutions. In any job, there are several nuances that are not immediately apparent to an outsider. Hence, a broad definition will not suffice. Such analyses are conducted by NGOs, such as Enable India, that provide recommendations about suitable candidature and workplace solutions.

When it comes to people with intellectual and developmental disability (IDD), companies have to provide for special educators/job coaches, while hiring such employees, besides providing them the basic functional training. Most companies budget these expenses as a usual part of their learning and development/training initiatives.

Dell’s Redefine Abilities programme offers internship to engage people with profound disabilities (cerebral palsy, muscular atrophy and other severe disabilities) and take them one step closer to their potential career path. The overall number of team members with disability at Dell EMC India COE has tripled since 2012.

While most CHROs believe it is about gender inclusion in India, companies really need to look beyond that. “Leaderships need to stretch and make it happen when it comes to diversity inclusion, because typically, the mindset is about gender diversification, whereas in actual, diversity goes beyond that,” emphasises Padmanabhan.

While few companies make it a part of their strategy of CSR or brand boost, there are others for whom it’s not just charity but a business decision.

Nobody excludes PWDs purposefully, but their inclusion is a choice, and for that, one has to make shifts, sums up another HR leader.

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