Championing disability inclusion: employers share the benefits

4 minute read

Disability inclusion is the right thing to do, say business leaders across the world. We hear from five HR directors who have worked with visual impairment charity Sightsavers on how they are becoming disability inclusive

Championing disability inclusion: employers share the benefitsCredit: Sightsavers

We’re always told to put the business case for any investment in people and inclusion is not exception. Yet, says Simon Brown, global technical lead at disability-inclusive initiative Inclusive Futures: “Contrary to what people might expect what we’ve seen is that the financial side has not been the driving force here for companies – it is the fact they believe hiring inclusively is the right thing to do.”

“The moral argument has really won” says Eric Kiniti, group corporate relationships director at the East African Breweries, a subsidiary of Diageo, while Sakshi Handa, HR director of Unilever Bangladesh, adds:It is an important responsibility for us to foster a culture for diverse talent. Going forward, we want to be able to welcome persons of disability. It is the right thing to do and we also want to lead by example in the industry disability and inclusion space.”

Diageo and Unilever are among a number of companies who helped shaped a disability toolkit launched last year as part of Inclusive Futures in response to a growing demand from business leaders who want people with disabilities to be represented in their workforce, but do not know where to start.

It offers advice for businesses – big and small – to recruit more people with disabilities, ensure workspaces are accessible and support employees with disabilities to achieve their potential.

Leaders passionate about improving disability inclusion share their lessons below:

Munyori Evans, head of human resources for Standard Chartered bank, Nairobi

“The experience for me has been eye opening. It’s been a learning journey. [The employees] have challenged us on how our building looks [in terms of accessibility], what we need to take care of in terms of the systems and the processes. We are stepping into this now with a bit more information in our hands and with a bit more confidence that this is doable and institutions and organisations like ours need to do this. All of that requires partnership and there is no single institution that can do that alone, and that is why I’m calling out for private and public [institutions] to come together.”

The approach has enhanced the services they provide. One of their employees who has a visual impairment worked with them to develop more accessible online materials. Evans notes: “That produced a deliberate attempt to then say, ‘how do we ensure that our learning programmes are well-geared towards the visually impaired?’ And, now we have accessible programmes for the visually impaired, which we continue to develop.”

Henry Ajibola, chief human resource and administration officer for power supplier Ikeja Electric, Lagos

“For us, we do not look for the typical things that most employers look out for, which is more around what educational qualifications you bring on the table. We look at things like creativity, problem solving, how analytical you are, and what value you create at work.”

This approach has helped Ikeja Electric bring two employees with disabilities on board. “They bring tenaciousness, resilience to their work, and dedication. Those are the things they bring on a daily basis that have made them stand out in the work that they do.”

Once you’ve gathered the knowledge as an organisation, Ajibola’s advice is to just take the plunge. “If the person has the capability to do the work, make those provisions within the organisation, restructure your workspaces, ensure that the right work tools to enable these individuals to be successful in the workplace are put in place.”

Emmanuel Michael, head of human capital at microfinance company Letshego Finance, Lagos

“The important thing is to identify what is the strength of this particular person that we want to bring on board, what can they do? And then we position them in the area where they have a strength for.”

Shah Md Rijyi Rony, head of HR at supermarket chain Shwapno, Bangladesh

“Because we want a diverse workforce, we try to look at the skills a candidate has or what skills they can develop and how we can match a job to those skills. We don’t only hope they will progress to management; that’s in our policy. We want a workforce that is gender inclusive, that is disability inclusive.”

Isaac’s Motorcycle Spares and Garage interns

Credit: Sightsavers

Working with an expert partner is key to gaining the knowledge and competence to enable disability inclusion. Isaac Bolingo, a local businessman in Western Uganda, worked with Sightsavers Connecting the Dots scheme to employ five interns with disabilities. Here’s their story.

Isaac Bolingo is a local businessman who owns a thriving mechanics shop in Masindi town, Western Uganda, called Isaac’s Motorcycle Spares and Garage. He has taken on five young people with disabilities as part of Connecting the Dots, a scheme that links them up with training and employment opportunities, and is training graduates from the scheme for the second year running.

One of his first trainees was Sharif, a 24-year-old who is deaf. After completing his course at a local technical college, he took part in the employment programme’s careers fair, where he joined other young people from the scheme to celebrate their hard work and connect with potential employers. At the careers fair, the graduates were each given a toolkit for their trade, so they would be fully equipped to begin their career

Sharif excelled at his new job and is now a paid member of staff at Isaac’s garage. He’s now working without needing any instruction and is supporting himself financially. Sharif says that if he hadn’t enrolled on the scheme, he would still be at home. “I’d be in the village doing nothing! Maybe only digging [farming work] – that would be the only work… it is difficult to find a job.”

Joel and Ronald, recent graduates from the scheme, have joined Sharif as trainee mechanics at Isaac’s garage and the three have become close friends. “I thought there were only a few people with disabilities when I was young,” says Ronald, “but when I came here [to Masindi], I found a lot and I said, ‘Ah, there are many people who have disabilities…’ We are all friends, all of us taking courses.”

As a person with a visual impairment, Ronald has found that people’s attitudes towards him can often be negative and he is treated differently to everyone else. But Isaac has been supportive, encouraging and friendly: “He’s a good person,” says Ronald. “He told me that if I work hard, I will stay with him.” Ronald’s excited about staying on at the garage after completing the internship, or using his new skills to work at another big garage in the town.

Learning to communicate

Isaac has embraced the opportunity to train young people with disabilities, but he knows that this can seem challenging to other employers. “The problem businessmen face sometimes is communicating with [people with disabilities]; sometimes it becomes a problem,” he says. But he explains that the key is patience, willingness to learn, and spending time with people: “You start learning slowly and eventually you find that you can [work with] that person properly.”

Isaac and Sharif had to learn to communicate effectively. Sharif communicates by using sign language, which he is teaching Isaac whenever there’s a spare moment. “He is a very good man – not only to me, but to others,” Sharif says about his boss. “I have learned from him, and I also try to teach him some signs, because I want him to learn and for us to communicate.

Creating opportunities

The employment programme has transformed the lives of more than 500 young people like Sharif in this area of Uganda. Many young people with disabilities struggle to find work and often end up staying at home and relying on family members to support them. Connecting the Dots offers these young people more independence and a chance to earn their own income.

The programme is also helping to shift negative attitudes in the community by showing that people with disabilities can be valued, productive employees for local businesses.

As an employer, Isaac has found the experience positive and wants to encourage more businesses to take part. His advice for other employers? Take the time to understand your trainees. “Handle the students [you] receive according to the way they are, because if you start now to mishandle the students there will be no understanding between each other. Work hard and give them your all,” he says. “If they are given the chance of working they can do something good – they surprise you.”

With thanks to Sightsavers, an international organisation that works in more than 30 developing countries to prevent avoidable blindness, treat and eliminate neglected tropical disease, and promote the rights of people with disabilities. Globally 2.2 billion people have a vision impairment and of these, at least 1 billion people have a vision impairment or blindness that could have been prevented or is yet to be addressed

Published 24 March 2021
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