Every year, the International Day for People with Disability is observed the world over, on the third day of December. According to the United Nations, this year’s theme is the empowerment of persons with disabilities (PWD) for inclusive, equitable and sustainable development as envisaged in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which pledges to ‘leave no one behind’.
Unfortunately, it is not easy to ensure that PWD are not ‘left behind’, especially in a country like India, where ramps at shopping malls to ensure easy accessibility for wheel chair-borne people have only become common recently. However hard we try, in India, those with disabilities enjoy lesser privileges than their counterparts in other countries. In fact, our country is the least disabled friendly, especially when it comes to employment.
For one, it lacks the right infrastructure. Its densely populated cities, heavy and mostly unmanageable traffic in the urban areas, rash drivers (who have little regard for the law or traffic rules), and badly maintained roads make it next to impossible for PWD to even dream of leading normal lives like their able counterparts. In the rural areas, lack of facilities coupled with illiteracy and superstitions can make life hell for the disabled.
However, it is time for India Inc. to sit up and take note of the fact that PWD can make a positive impact in the workplace. In fact, research reveals that PWD, if accepted well into the workforce, can prove to be more productive than their colleagues. They are also known to be more regular, punctual, diligent, loyal, sincere and with a very low level of absenteeism. So, while Indian companies are focussed on trying various ways to engage their employees, they should also realise that they should try and sensitise their workforce about PWDs and their skills and abilities that can prove to be an asset to the organisation.
In this day of technological change, PWD have been able to excel in various fields, such as physiotherapy, academics, banking, and even law. Even those with visual impairment have proven their skills at handling computers, and some have gone on to be good lawyers too. Many have been able to teach music, yoga, and also deliver lectures as professors.
Those suffering from deafness can do very well in factories where the noise may otherwise hinder the productivity of people with normal hearing. For instance, the hearing impaired can be good at cutting tiles, beating panels, and working at construction sites and factories.
“We have a diversity and equal opportunities policy, which does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, nationality, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation”
So what keeps organisations from throwing their doors open to PWD? The reason is primarily lack of awareness. In addition, India is not sufficiently equipped to handle persons with disabilities. Their mobility remains a huge challenge, right from access to public transport to accessibility of the workplaces. Also, most are brought up by overprotective parents who not only smother them with their affection, but in doing so prevent them from becoming independent. Most parents of special children refuse to let go of them even when they turn adults. The mindset of the workforce in the corporate world only adds to their woes. Often, co-workers harbour a mental block that a team member who is physically challenged will slow down the entire team.
Most organisations today have policies in place for diversity and inclusion. Prashant Mishra, MD-India and South Asia, British Medical Journal (BMJ), says “We have a diversity and equal opportunities policy, which does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, nationality, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation.”
There are many companies, especially startups that have recognised and accepted the special talents and skills that PWD possess. Organisations, such as Lemon Tree Hotels, have welcomed PWD into their workforce with open arms. Out of its staff of over 4000, at least a 1000 are either PWD or uneducated. Hiring them has only proved advantageous to the Hotel, because not only are these workers more loyal, they are more productive, sincere and grateful for the opportunity to boot. At its Gurgaon hotel, about 80 per cent of the staff comprises PWD. Their numbers will only rise, because the hotel gets repeat customers simply because clients admire its inclusive culture.
Simply having policies in place does not help in the upliftment and empowerment of PWD. The bitter truth is that not many PWD in our country have the confidence to even make the effort to try and gain an entry into the corporate world. It is time to change all that. Friends, family and well-wishers need to step in and give them the required push.
At Vindhya e-Infomedia, the data entry and call centre outsourcing service company in Bengaluru, the customer service team is led by a person who does not have arms. However, the Company realised that he is able to perform as well as anybody else, provided he is allowed to type with his toes and his keyboard is placed on the floor. Vindhya also employs visually impaired personnel to attend calls from customers. In fact, these employees have been able to progress in life and grow with the Company. Vindhya proudly claims that 60 per cent of its staff comprises people with some disability or the other. Realising the high level of efficiency exhibited by these PWD, even the customers who come in contact with them have started considering employing PWD. That is a good sign and if the trend becomes infectious, nothing can be better.
It is a win-win for the employee and the employer. The PWD gain confidence, are respected by family and friends, become economically independent, feel productive and find purpose and meaning in life. Their employers, on the other hand, have in them loyal, productive, regular, sincere and fully engaged employees who are full of gratitude for the opportunity given to them, and are eager to learn. Not surprisingly, the attrition rate is very low too.
While it is true that a small per cent of government jobs is reserved for PWDs, and the Government also reimburses the employers’ share of PF and ESI, this is not enough. Private organisations should also be more open to hiring PWD. More and more companies should make their workplaces disabled friendly by ensuring the presence of ramps, accessible toilets and spacious lifts that are convenient even for the visually impaired to use.
“While most organisations do have the intent to hire PWD, it is not always practical. However, As part of our CSR activities, we may consider lending support and assistance to PWD in any way possible”
According to Satish J. Kurpad, DGM-HR, Velocis, “While most organisations do have the intent to hire PWD, it is not always practical. For instance, our leased office building has no lift or disabled-friendly facilities, and we have teams working out of the basement as well. A PWD that I had personally interviewed refused to take the job saying it would be difficult for him to manage without help, and he did not want to be dependent on others for mobility all the time. I completely understood his feelings. Also, as an IT solutions company, most of our work involves interaction with clients and people, understanding their needs and also being out in the field, which makes it difficult to employ PWD.”
But when organisations are unable to directly employ PWD, they can find other ways to do their bit for them. For instance, Kurpad personally feels, “As part of our CSR activities, we may consider lending support and assistance to PWD in any way possible, and helping them obtain any suitable employment, which will definitely be a step in the right direction”.
There are companies that are willing to accommodate PWD, but with certain limitations. For instance, V. Krishnan, co-founder and director, Justdial, strongly believes that PWD need to be considered equal and treated just as any other member of the workforce, in terms of the work assigned and what is expected of them. Only then will they feel equal and good about themselves. His organisation encourages and supports those with speech and hearing impairment, and is willing to employ them for jobs where oral communication is not required. The Company already has people with physical disabilities in the workforce, who are performing well. However, in Krishnan’s own words, “When it comes to hiring the visually impaired, we have yet to make a breakthrough. I am personally willing to give them an opportunity, but we have to first find the right technology to harness their skills before making the adjustments required at the workplace to facilitate their employment.”
“PWD need to be considered equal, and treated just as any other member of the workforce, in terms of the work assigned and what is expected of them. Only then will they feel equal and good about themselves”
We need more such forward looking and inclusive organisations in the country today. Making the workplace friendly for PWD is easily doable and does not require extraordinary efforts or expenditure. It is just a matter of pushing it up on the D&I agenda and giving it as much importance as employee engagement.