One of the greatest barriers to the employment of people with disabilities is not physical access to business premises (although that remains a major issue); it’s attitude.
Fear, ignorance and stereotypes contribute to people with disabilities being unfairly discriminated against.
Very often, widespread lack of awareness and knowledge, rather than malice, results in discrimination that is not intentional. However that doesn’t make it less discriminatory or hurtful.
Even the best and most progressive affirmative action policy within an organisation will not be successful without first addressing institutional prejudices and unconscious bias against employing people with disabilities.
Any strategies aimed at addressing issues of disability inclusion and diversity must necessarily include all stakeholders who impact on the culture and functioning of a workplace i.e. the board of directors, executive management, senior management, middle 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 process operations and culture of the business.
Of course, employees with disabilities themselves should also be extensively engaged and involved in any meant to benefit the company. This will ensure that they provide their input to the solutions being developed to address common attitudinal, operational and other barriers standing in the way of their employment and integration in the workplace.
Common attitudinal barriers include, but are not limited to:
1. Inappropriate focus - focusing on a person's disability rather than on their abilities.
2. Superiority complex - seeing or perceiving an employee with disability as a ‘second-class citizen’ and therefore not deserving of equal rights.
3. Pity syndrome - feeling sorry for an employee with a disability and adopting a patronising attitude as a result.
4. Unfounded fear - being fearful or afraid of offending an employee with a disability by doing or saying the wrong thing and thus adopting an avoidance attitude towards employees with disabilities.
5. Diminished expectations - tending to dismiss an employee with a disability as being incapable of meeting job requirements because of his or her disability
6. Stereotypical tendencies – seeing disability as implying stupidity or slowness. People with disabilities are perceived to be able to do only basic unskilled jobs. Also making both positive and negative generalisations about disability.
7. Backlash - believing that an employee with a disability receives an unfair advantage because of his or her disability.
8. Assuming drop in productivity - generally assuming that people that have a disability require more support in the workplace which will reduce the productivity and performance of the team or other employees.
Unlike physical and systematic barriers, these types of attitudinal barriers cannot be overcome simply through laws. The best remedy is familiarity, getting people with and without disabilities to mingle as colleagues. In time, most of the attitudes will give way to comfort, respect and friendship.
Dr Jerry Gule is the Chairman at South African Employers for Disability (SAE4D).