More than one billion people experience disability today and this figure is expected to increase further, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Breaking barriers and creating inclusive workplaces is critical in today’s omni-connected world. Organisations have, over the years, made a conscious effort towards enabling people with disabilities at the workplace - including putting in place a hybrid setup during the pandemic. This focus is no longer merely on driving inclusivity but also to encourage diverse ideas and thoughts.
This International Day of Persons with Disabilities (PwD), HR leaders tell People Matters why investing in PwD talent matters for companies more than ever and how technology and skilling for the digital economy can create barrier-free workplaces.
“Although average PwD representation continues to be less than 1% in the organised sector, organisations which have consistently invested in disability inclusion have been able to experience improvements like larger talent pools, enhanced productivity, a better experience for both employees and customers as well as improved mechanisms to manage conflicts, strikes, and lockouts,” says Sandhya Ramesh, lead - diversity, equity & inclusion, Great Place To Work.
Shweta Mohanty, head – HR, SAP Labs India while dwelling on the topic said focusing on people’s strengths rather than their differences is important. “Bringing on board a diverse talent not just broadens our workforce strength, but also helps us drive innovation at scale. Our ‘Autism at Work’ programme highlights the valuable skill sets that people with autism can offer and create an impact. With support from our local partners, we were able to integrate Autism at Work into the mainstream company processes and were able to achieve ~90% retention of the employees in the programme,” she informs.
“Not only do we hire, but through the Autism support circle, an ecosystem of coaching, mentoring, and holistic growth and inclusion of each individual is established to ensure sustained scalability. We look forward to taking precedence in the conversations around the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace. Empathy and openness can help us become not just a better company, but also a successful one. Over the years, our eyes have been continuously opened to more possibilities than originally anticipated by witnessing the contributions of our Autism at Work employees at SAP. Our colleagues have filed for patents, dramatically redesigned processes, represented in the UN, and attained countless other achievements,” she adds.
SAP Labs India goes beyond hiring numbers to measure the success of its diversity efforts as “inclusion is about being belonging and respected”, says Mohanty.
“We conduct sensitisation sessions for our employees to be more aware of the concerns of the differently abled. We have conducted an accessibility audit and made the necessary infrastructural changes to ensure an Accessible and Inclusive environment. We encourage the teams to use ALT Text to ensure colleagues with visual disabilities understand images in an email,” she adds.
Enablement using technology
PwDs, who have been part of workplaces, report that the top challenges they face are barrier-free physical and digital infrastructure, judgment-free workplace, fair promotions and growth, inadequate training, lack of flexible working arrangements, and limited access to assistive technologies.
Lakshmi C, managing director and lead - human resources at Accenture in India, says technology has a big role to play in creating these barrier-free workplaces in the form of assistive technologies, ergonomic support and work applications that are accessible by design.
“At Accenture, we factor in accessibility in the design and development of our technology applications and collaboration platforms. Our global network of ‘Accessibility Centers of Excellence’ helps our people to choose the right kind of enablement devices after experiencing them and customises solutions for their unique requirements. We also undertake collaborative technology research and development in this space. An example of this is Dhvani – our inhouse platform that enables communication for people who have speech, hearing, and language disabilities by converting voice to text and text to voice,” she adds.
Accenture’s ‘Disability Adjustment Request’ platform helps its people to raise requirements for accommodation such as assistive technologies and ergonomic adjustments. For example, through this tool, any employee with disabilities can easily ask for accommodations such as assistive technology, flex work arrangements, sign language interpreters, screen readers, and more.
All roles at Accenture are open to persons with disabilities based on the experience and skills that they can bring into the organisation and are supported by accessibility enablement.
Beyond accessibility, the company focuses on empowering and growing persons with disabilities through skilling programmes, leadership development interventions, progressive people policies and medical insurance benefits, in addition to sensitising our people to eliminate unconscious bias.
“Skilling for the digital economy is vital to increasing the participation of persons with disabilities in the workforce, and we drive this at a community level with our ecosystem partners through our ‘Skills to Succeed’ and inclusive internship programs,” she adds.
“We impart need-based training to people with disabilities both within the organisation (through the learning and development teams) as well as outside (through Tech Mahindra Foundation’s ARISE+ and SMART+ initiatives),” adds Harshvendra Soin, global chief people officer & head – marketing.
Tech Mahindra’s flagship tools, technologies, and in-house products (like the sZensEYE: sight-enabling goggles for people with blindness) enable disability-free experiences for people with disabilities with far superior human connections. Tech Mahindra actively develops and contributes to development of these aids (audio books, for example) which make everyday lives of people with disabilities far easier.
How to retain PwD employees
Nitin Dave, CEO, Quess General Staffing, says they encourage employers to provide accessible workspaces, assistive devices, social security benefits (PF and ESI for self and dependents), accidental coverage, pick-up, and drop-off service, subsidised or free meals, sign language interpreters, dedicated floor managers or implants on the ground, and training for co-workers, as part of their PwD hiring practices.
“This helps organisations improve their retention rate and reduces the challenges faced by PwDs while seeking jobs in the organised sectors. Through our initiatives we have successfully boarded over 5000 PwD associates till date. Moreover, we have seen continuous growth in Pwd hiring from 1% (Q4 FY22) to 4% (Q2 FY23). There has also been a notable increase in ecom, retail, BFSI & manufacturing clients hiring Pwd candidates. Additionally, we have signed a MoU with Sector Skill Council to promote Pwd hiring,” Dave added.
Walmart Global Tech (WGT) in India has a unique Associate Resource Groups (ARGs) such as ‘wCare’ that play a pivotal role in building an inclusive workplace for all.
"‘wCare’ helps foster a supportive environment with and for people whose lives have been touched by disabilities so that they can reach their true potential. Accessibility is a critical part of creating equity within WGT and we have focused on offering best-in-class workplace infrastructure and benefits, keeping in mind the diverse needs of our associates. Key among them are providing enhanced coverage for critical illnesses through top-up plans and sponsoring home and vehicle modification for associates with disabilities. Equally important is our commitment to build a culture of inclusion that is based on awareness, acceptance and action by continuing to educate our larger workforce, break biases, and empower people with disabilities,” said Rohit Ramanand, vice president – engineering, Walmart Global Tech.
Need for govt policies that create awareness, provide support
Dave believes that challenges faced by PwD can be bridged by providing equal opportunities for advanced education programmes and by creating awareness about the potential of PwD and the opportunities available to them.
“Offering financial support such as subsidiaries and grants on education, loans and health facilities will help them get the necessary training and resources needed to be successful in a formal job. While the country's newly developed infrastructure is more accessible to PwDs, policymakers should also consider initiatives that renovate older public buildings and workplaces to make them more accessible to people with disabilities,” he said.
Additionally, says Dave, businesses can also foster a more inclusive environment, by offering their PwD employees fair accommodations, resources, and support. They can create and implement policies and practices that lead to better recruitment, hiring, and retention of PwD employees.
“Finally, PwD can also be part of diversity and inclusion initiatives by participating in company-sponsored networking events, participating in mentorship programs, and serving as role models and leaders within the organisation. Employer-sponsored training opportunities, manuals and courses, career development plans, periodic progress reviews, and orientation training also go a long way in bridging the challenges,” he adds.