Accessible workplaces unlock potential

July 2015

“The right to work is a fundamental human right. However, persons with disabilities are often not considered in employment due to negative perceptions regarding their ability to contribute or the high cost of accommodating their disability or inaccessible workplaces. Often, employers are unaware of the valuable contribution persons with disabilities can make in a diverse workplace, through the use of adaptive and assistive technologies, and other reasonable accommodation measures.” – UN. Members of the Progression team, Justene Smith, Disability Specialist, and Julia Wood, Organisational Development Manager, have unpacked what reasonable accommodation is and how it can improve the accessibility of a workplace, unlocking potential and creating an inclusive environment for all individuals to grow and participate.

People with disabilities are becoming more integrated into the workplace as many companies strive towards diversifying their workforce. Yet despite these efforts, workplaces remain largely inaccessible to people with disabilities, with physical and attitudinal barriers still presenting a major challenge to employers.

The question then presents itself: how do we create an accessible workplace for those with disabilities? Reasonable accommodation is a solution which readily answers this problem.

Legislation supports inclusion and accessibility

In South Africa, reasonable accommodation is ensured through the Employment Equity Act No. 55 of 1998. The concept of reasonable accommodation, as defined in the Employment Equity Act, is designed to provide a fair, non-judgmental, accessible mechanism to explore the possibilities which exist within a business, with the view on minimising the barriers and focussing on the skills and value of individuals.
The scope of reasonable accommodation in the employment context has been further defined in the Code of Good Practice on Disability in the Workplace by the Department of Labour. This Code specifies that reasonable accommodation applies to applicants and employees, and may be required during the recruitment and selection processes; in the working environment; in the way work is usually done and evaluated and rewarded; and in the benefits and privileges of employment (paragraph 6.3).

Reasonable accommodation: A holistic approach

In the context of disability, reasonable accommodation can be defined as any change in the workplace that enables a qualified individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunity and may include:
- Changes to a job application process
- Changes that enable an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.
- Modifications to the work environment such as making existing facilities accessible, job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, acquiring new, or modifying existing equipment, adjusting tests, training materials or policies or providing qualified readers or interpreters.

Through the implementation of Best Practice companies can foster and facilitate accessible, fair and non-discriminatory environments, and will be better equipped to manage the talents and abilities of people with a disability.

“The aim of any reasonable accommodation measure is to reduce the impact of the impairment on the person’s capacity to perform the essential functions of the job,” explains Julia. Justene further highlights the importance of introducing reasonable accommodation as early as the job application phase in the process of employing persons with disabilities. “By ensuring accessibility early on, employers will reduce the risk of discriminating against a candidate which could ultimately lead to them not getting the job,” she explains.

Breaking barriers to implementing access

Misconceptions around reasonable accommodation are often what prevent it from being successfully implemented. The most common of these is that reasonable accommodation is always expensive and that the cost associated with introducing disability to the workplace outweighs the benefits. Other misconceptions include the perception that all disabilities require reasonable accommodation, or that the same reasonable accommodation can be implemented for persons with the same disabilities.

For employers to overcome these misconceptions they need to understand reasonable accommodation as a solution that promotes inclusion and empowers individuals to be successful in the workplace. “Employers who adopt this attitude are able to think in broader terms about the people and skill opportunities available for their organisations, which ultimately helps them unlock real potential,” explains Justene. “As each individual experiences his/ her disability differently, so too will reasonable accommodation depend on the individual. It is commonplace to attach abilities and limitations to a diagnosis rather than exploring individual abilities and limitations.”

The key to successful integration therefore lies in being able to remain open-minded when considering reasonable accommodation options, working together with the individual to ensure that functionality is achieved.

Advances in technology have also greatly improved the successful implementation of reasonable accommodation and created the opportunity for people with disabilities to fully participate in the workplace. “Companies such as Apple and Microsoft have built in accessibility enablers in their standard software,” explains Julia. “Many adaptations can be made to a standard office PC at no additional cost to the company. There are also numerous general and specialist devices that can further enable accessibility for individuals with disabilities.”

Ensuring sustainability for the future
However, overcoming misconceptions and successful implementation of reasonable accommodation is just the beginning. In order for reasonable accommodation to be sustainable, the matters of disclosure and confidentiality needs to be written into an organisation’s policies and procedures so that an employer can fairly and effectively manage the verification of disability disclosures and the subsequent discussions about reasonable accommodation needs. There should also be processes in place for assessing needs, sourcing providers and applying reasonable accommodation. As such, employers also need to set aside budget for reasonable accommodation.

Lastly, a long-term solution requires thoughtful and sensitive education of staff around disability and reasonable accommodation. This can help gain buy-in from the workforce and assist in breaking the prejudices and stigma often associated with disability.

Disability needs to be approached with a ‘business as usual’ attitude. Reasonable accommodation gives organisations the opportunity to not only successfully integrate disability into their workforce, but to create a truly inclusive environment in which all individuals can grow and participate.

This year, Progression will be hosting its 4th annual disability conference in partnership with TDCI. The theme for the conference will be around exploring tools, technology and systems for reasonable accommodating people with disabilities in the workplace. The conference will be run over 2 days and will provide HR managers, EE managers, Transformation and Disability specialists, CEO’s and Health and Wellness practitioners with practical knowledge and tools for enabling an accessible and inclusive environment. For information about the Conference please contact Julia Wood, julia@progression.co.za

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