Why we need to create an enabled workplace

Disability at the workplace - LabourflawsBy Barbara du Preez-Ulmi. Only 2% of us who are blind can read braille. There are 285 Million of us who are visually impaired – that is of 4% of the 2014 world population. So, while making your workplace documentations available in braille, does not mean you have created a disability-friendly environment. This for two reasons: One, hardly anyone can read it; two, it is not only the blind or wheelchair-bound that are”disabled”.

Disability takes on many forms. There are the well-known physical disabilities, but then there are also mental and psychological disabilities. Some disabilities are permanent, others are temporary. The disability that is the most prevalent, is our incompetence to change our mindsets. If you should develop a Tourette syndrome tomorrow, who is to say that you are disabled? Measured against what norm, what criteria? A discourse on this topic would lead us to an entire new conversation, so I’ll just leave you with this thought for now.

Productivity against all odds

The idea of a profitable workplace is commonly rooted in the need of a business owner to create the most wealth in the shortest of time, and with the lowest of expenses. To achieve that, employees are timed, measured, controlled, and have to produce their work in accordance with a set, data-driven benchmark. This in turn requires people to work at maximum output for a minimum of 40 hours or more a week, and within set working hours. While such a setup is already difficult to adhere to without fail by employees who have no known disabilities, it is even more so for people who do have some physical, mental or psychological constraint. There is a need to re-think what is considered productivity, and what is profitability – at least for as long as we still employ actual human beings. 

I once worked at the office of a tour operator, where the business owner would stand at the front door at 8 am sharp, with his pocket-watch in his hand. Anyone who came through the door seconds or minutes past 8 am, was asked to line up outside his office for him to issue a warning. I was “late” by 2 minutes twice in a row. It had to do with the fact that the creche at which I had to drop my 2-year old child at 6 am in the morning, didn’t open on time, leaving me sit in traffic for longer than usual. But that to him was just an excuse. I was grateful for the fact that I did not suffer under an anti-social personality disorder and found a new job within the same month. Oh, and I almost forgot: I would have made it by 8 am in spite of correlating events I had no control over, if only I had been able to run like everyone else from the parking lot. But an atrophy stopped me from being able to do so.

What I am trying to show with this example, is that a willingness to listen to the other side would result in alternative workplace arrangements that would benefit all parties, and still keep a business profitable – if not even more so, due to a higher work morale. This especially where disabilities are involved that someone has no direct control over.

Ability to prevent conflict within a legal framework

Not only is it difficult for people with mental, physical or psychological”disabilities” to find and keep work; but even more so, if they have to resolve conflict at the workplace, or want to report any injustice. While constitutionally, everybody has the right to dignity and to access to justice, it is not easy to enforce it practically. Accessibility to (equality) court buildings or the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) are difficult; there may be communication and/or language barriers for someone who has a speech impediment or is mute or deaf; a lack of trained court staff or consultants do not help the case either, and workplace colleagues may not show any understanding or empathy.

The ILO has a code of practice on managing disability in the workplace which encourages employers to design a positive strategy in managing disability related issues at the workplace. It is a guideline that is to be read in context of national conditions and that is to be applied according to national labour legislation. South Africa, for instance, has embedded most of this code through the Code of Good Practice on the Employment of People with Disabilities in the EEA (Employment Equity Act No 55 of 1998). In its preamble, it outlines how unfair discrimination against people with disabilities is perpetuated in many ways, for instance: “Unfounded assumptions about the abilities and performance of job applicants and employees with disabilities; inaccessible workplaces; inappropriate training for people with disabilities“, and more.

While it is noble to have such regulations as part of a democratic constitution, they are seldom applied or consulted in the workplace. To date, only 0.5-1.5% of South Africa’s workforce (labourer, professional and managerial level) are disabled, with about 99% of South African’s officially disabled people not being able to find work. And it has happened numerous times that people with a disability were dismissed on grounds of under-performance or misconduct, rather than on grounds of their disability, which would make such a dismissal unfair in most cases (the LRA – South Africa’s Labour Relations Act No 66 of 1995) prohibits employers from disciplining people who are disabled, and a dismissal is regarded as automatically unfair in terms of s 187 (1)(f) of the LRA).
In September 2016, an employee sustained injuries during a failed suicide attempt. After being termed “cosmetically unacceptable” by his employer, Smith v Kit Kat Group (Pty) Ltd, the employee was prohibited from returning to work. The Labour Court found that the employer adopted the wrong approach. Although the employer didn’t dismiss the employee, he made caused unjustifiable hardship for the employee in limbo. Since the employer did not reasonably accommodate the employee in question, and treated him unfairly in relation to s 10 of the EEA, the Labour Court awarded compensation and damages amounting to 30 months’ remuneration.

How could this have been avoided? Exactly – not by singling out an employee who is going through a very hard time, but to create a safe space for conversation; by calling on expert help to deal with the matter at the workplace; and to transparently communicate to the rest of the employees how this colleague of theirs needs help and understanding, and not excommunication.

Enabling employees with and without disabilities

Yet, it is not always easy to accommodate an employee with a disability as an employer; and more often than not, the responsibility in dealing with disability-related issues at the workplace are left to the managers, who don’t necessarily have the basic legal background to deal with the matter; and sometimes, also not the emotional and communicative capabilities needed to resolve such issues. To address this, training of managers is needed. But it shouldn’t stop there – all staff should be aware of their rights and their duties, stripped by legalese. And it shouldn’t stop there, either. The workplace being such an integral part of our economies and societies, it is a crucial place at which to start with a healing mind-shift in how we treat or see “others”. DPOs (Disabled Person’s Organisations), civic society, Non-Profits and individual activists have been trying to do so for decades, and still are. What gave the movement for change a boost was the first international treaty on people with disabilities, which has a direct effect on how job seekers or employees with a disability (or who develop a disability while in employ) should be accommodated.

A global mind-shift is needed

The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) is the first UN treaty that in detail proclaims the rights of persons with disabilities and it sets out a code of implementation. Countries who join the Convention promise to develop and implement policies, advocacy programmes, laws and administrative measures to secure rights of people with disabilities, and fight (unfair) discrimination.

South Africa has ratified the UN CRPD in March 2007, and entered it into force in May 2008. Prior to the UN CRPD Convention, South Africa has cemented its vision to provide equal opportunities for all via its Constitution and Bills of Rights (for instance, to create an environment that gives full and equal participation to disabled children and adults in our society -including accessibility, protection of inherent dignity, and economical empowerment). Section 9(1) of the Constitution provides for a vertically applicable right in section 9(3) in providing that the state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including disability. Most of the rights contained in the Bill of Rights apply to ‘everyone’ and therefore most of these rights would also be applicable to and include persons with disabilities.

The economical aspects of these rights have filtered through to our Employment Equity Act (EEA Act 55 of 1998) that outlines the protection of people with disabilities in the workplace which does not focus on the diagnosis of impairment, but the effect of a disability on the person in relation to the workplace. In the year 2000, South Africa has passed the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (PEPUDA) to further try and implement a non-discriminatory workplace for all. Yet, all of the acts and laws as outlined above, focus on “reasonably accommodating” people with disabilities in the workplace. A mental shift in how we see “these people” still has to happen in our country, and in many others.

“Reasonability” can be interpreted widely. There are guidelines in the LRA and EEA that describe the process to follow when an employee has a permanent or temporary disability; when performance is affected; when unfair discrimination occurs; and similar. Similarly, “inherent job requirements” is open to any interpretation. It all comes down to how willing we are to find alternative solutions, to negotiate fairly, and to be the change that creates a workplace where everyone is welcome.

Wherever there are two or more people working together, there is potential for conflict. Naturally, we use our filters to categorise people we work with, and we sum them up within 3 seconds of meeting them for the first time. The issue comes in where these filters are all we live by, and we become stereotyped and inflexible. Where we emphasise “otherness” rather than trying to find common denominators. If you suffer from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), it is difficult to work with someone who is highly creative and what seems to you to be chaotic. It is even more difficult to work with someone who also has a mental or physical incapacity or challenge that you cannot relate to or don’t understand. It is crucial to inform each other of challenges, especially those out of one’s control. Managers have an inherent duty to create this kind of clarity among their team and the workplace as a whole, in order to stem unwanted discrimination in its bud. It takes much more effort to resolve a conflict arising from non-acceptance, than to create acceptance and prevent unnecessary conflict. 

There is a gigantic global mind-shift needed to address issues and conflicts arising from “otherness”. If only we could create a system where everyone fits in, from “disabled” to young, and old. Maybe this is utopian, but unless we start re-thinking our social, legal and economic systems, we won’t ever make that next big step of humankind.


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