The disability equity minefield
Businesses can increase their broad-based black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) scorecard rating by investing in disability initiatives, but they need to do so for the right reasons.
"BEE has brought to the fore the employment of people with disabilities as well as identifying skills development opportunities for them," says Sivarajan Naidoo, Director of EduPower. While this is a good thing, Naidoo says there's a distinct difference between businesses that are simply ticking boxes in terms of meeting their BEE target and those companies that implement genuine transformation of their workforce to accommodate disabled people in the organisation.
He says: "One of most obvious signs that a business is sincere about transformation is if the company has developed a policy within its HR department to accommodate people with disabilities. If it hasn't, then it's probably a box-ticking BEE exercise."
South Africa is a ratifying party to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which places an obligation on South Africa and society in general to follow the UN convention and the way in which it's applied, especially in business, says Naidoo. "While the convention is much broader in terms of the general rights of people with disabilities, they still require employment in the workplace, and this is where South African businesses can come to the fore."
Naidoo says key to implementing genuine transformation in the workplace is a sound understanding of the various definitions around disabilities. "Most people, and businesses, don't know the difference between people who are disabled or those who are impaired, and also don't understand what reasonable accommodation of these implies in the workplace."
A disabled person is someone who has a long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment that puts them at a disadvantage when compared to people without impairments. "A key criteria is that no assisted device is able to create a sense of equality," he adds.
While the term 'impairment' also applies to physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, an employer could take steps that include assisted devices or reasonable accommodation to render this category of person more equal and thus level the playing field. "It depends on the specific disability or impairment," says Naidoo. And while the types of disabilities and impairments are extremely broad, so too are the types of workplaces, ranging from the factory floor to an office space. "Not all workplaces are accessible to certain types of disability or impairment," says Naidoo, "and this has to be considered by businesses looking to provide opportunities for the disabled and/or impaired."
For example, mobility impaired people require ramps, lifts and ablution facilities, which may be less practical on a factory floor compared to an office environment or a call centre. The point that Naidoo makes, is that beyond requiring the use of ramps, etc, mobility impaired people are considered to have no other impairment, which means they can function as well as anyone else in a call centre environment, for instance.
"However, there are subtler issues, such as how they get to and from work, for example. People relying on wheelchairs can't use public transport, they require specialised transport with a ramp lift, which is a lot more expensive because of the required adaptation, as well as the fact that it can transport fewer people per trip.
"People with disabilities also tend to come to work a little later if they're relying on help from an outside party, which the company needs to accommodate. Such persons may also have other health issues resulting from their disability, and might need more time off work to go to healthcare providers, and if they're reliant on public healthcare, this can mean an entire day out of the office. Employers need to ensure that their policy accommodates all of this without disadvantaging able bodied people. If this isn't handled sensitively, a whole lot of issues can arise in the workplace as a result."
Reasonable accommodation comes in both tangible and intangible forms for a wide range of disabilities or impairments. It could be as simple as a keyboard or software, but it could also be making allowance for latecomers or people who require more sick leave. When it comes to impairments that aren't immediately apparent, such as mental illness, for example, reasonable accommodation could take the form of counselling services.
Naidoo says: "All disabilities and impairments must be diagnosed by a clinician and businesses need to understand that, when under specific treatment, people with these types of impairments can perform equal to an able-bodied person. However, this can fluctuate and be inconsistent. It's also important that employers lower the amount of stress in the workplace, as it can be a major trigger for psychological impairments."
When you consider impairment and disability from a B-BBEE scorecard perspective, that's when it starts to become complex, according to Naidoo. "Some consultants and clinicians draw a strict distinction between impairment and disability. People who are classified as impaired are discriminated against by the B-BBEE codes because they speak to disability and not impairment. This results in a whole category of impaired people who don't qualify for B-BBEE grants or employment."
Naidoo believes the B-BBEE definition of disability results in discrimination against people who are considered impaired as opposed to disabled. "Given that the state grant system recognises people with disabilities and impairment, I believe the inconsistency is in the way that B-BBEE is being interpreted."
He believes the solution is for each company with specific employment opportunities for people with disabilities or impaired persons to compile their own policy, drawing on the UN convention and local policy, and see what works in their specific environment. "For example it might be difficult to accommodate people in wheelchairs on a factory floor, while they might be perfect for a call centre."
Speaking to this specific example, Naidoo says workplaces that find they are unable to accommodate people who have a disability or who are impaired, but that wish to benefit from the improvement in their B-BBEE rating, can sponsor individuals to be trained at host businesses that can accommodate this category of person. The sponsor pays for the person's learnership and wages, providing the disabled or impaired person with an opportunity to get job experience and ultimately a career.
He concludes: "While there is a far wider range of disabilities and impairments than mobility impairments, there's very much a tendency for workplaces to accommodate people with this type of disability as it's fairly simple to implement reasonable accommodation in the form of ramps and ablutions. Sensory impairments are far more difficult to accommodate, but I feel that with the necessary research and education, far more people with disabilities and impairments can be included in the workforce under the right circumstances."