Diversity is a well-known concept in South Africa with its melting pot of races, religions and cultures, and workplaces in SA are required by law to be representative of the population. But where there is often an overlooked gap is when it comes to people with disabilities. Despite the fact that around 7.5% of the South African population is disabled, employees with disabilities make up only 1% of the workforce.
Disability – what does the law say?
The Employment Equity Act defines people with disabilities as “people who have a long-term or recurring physical or mental impairment, which substantially limits their prospects of entry into, or advancement in, employment.” The Act mandates that 3% of the workforce should be made up of employees with disabilities. But despite this, there remains a general lack of compliance by many companies – particularly in the public sector. Why the reluctance to employ disabled people?
The most common concern is the cost relating to providing reasonable accommodation. Accommodation refers to modifications or alterations to the way a job is normally performed to enable a suitably qualified person with a disability to perform as everyone else. The type of accommodation would depend on the job, the work environment and the person’s specific impairment but could include making the workplace more accessible, for example building a ramp for wheelchair access or equipping lifts with special numbering for blind people. Other potential objections to hiring disabled people are the perception that it requires extensive job modifications or that it is risky to employ a disabled person.
But the benefits of hiring professionals living with disabilities far outweigh the possible cost outlay or the adjustments that may be needed. In the South African context, there is a legal (if not moral) obligation to employ people living with disabilities. But disability inclusion should not be approached as a purely legislative requirement – rather, it should be seen as a benefit to businesses. In fact, it has been shown that inclusion can strengthen companies in many – often unexpected – ways.
The greatest benefit of disability inclusion for companies is increased retention and decreased staff turnover. Disabled employees are also often more reliable: they tend to take fewer days off, take less sick leave and are less likely to leave their jobs than other employees. Once in the right jobs, disabled people are as productive as other employees.
Diversity of talent and perspectives
Companies that embrace disability inclusion gain access to a larger talent pool. With 1.3 billion disabled people worldwide, this sector of the population provides an abundance of untapped talent, creativity, manpower and skills. Disability inclusion also creates diversity in the way business is done. Because people living with disabilities are generally used to overcoming obstacles and have different perspectives, their input can change the way the company handles problem solving or customer service.
A 2018 report by Accenture tracked 140 companies over four years, analysing their disability practices and financial performance. The companies that had the best disability and inclusion practices had on average 28% higher revenue, double the net income and 30% higher economic profit margins than the rest. In South Africa, the government offers tax rebates and incentives to organisations who employ and train disabled people and companies need to understand how they can capitalise on these.
Improved brand loyalty
People with disabilities make up a significant market segment. Together with their friends and families, disabled people worldwide have a spending power of $8 trillion. An inclusive company is looked upon favourably; making consumers aware of a company’s disability inclusion initiative can have a massive positive impact on its brand.
People with disability build strong connections with customers, which builds the company’s image among its staff, community and customers. Morale is boosted through the creation of a diverse workforce and teamwork improves. When disabled employees are valued as people for the skills and strengths they bring to the table, the whole company benefits.
Disabled does not mean incapable
The benefits of disability inclusion are clear and the goal for every company should be to make it part of everyday business. The Employment Equity Act calls for fair representation of South Africa’s demographics within the workforce, and that includes those living with disabilities – there is no longer any excuse for not employing disabled people.
Another great way to incorporate disability inclusion is through a business model, like the one we have created at Capability Cleaning, which provides training and employment for disabled people. Over and above our able-bodied workforce, Capability embraces diversity by also employing cleaners with either intellectual or physical disabilities, doing so as part of the outsourced contract cleaning solutions provided to our various clients. We find and vet staff for the best cultural fit and train them in specialist cleaning techniques, equipment and chemical use, and in health and safety best practice. Not only does this empower disabled individuals, but businesses also gain an advantage through the improvement of their B-BBEE scorecards.