What is Disability Awareness in the Workplace and Why is it Important?
by Justene Smith

November 2016

Despite the ongoing effort to introduce disability into the workplace, many people with disabilities still face discrimination when accessing the open labour market.

Statistically, only a small percentage of people with disabilities are employed. Furthermore, of the people with disabilities that are employed, many are in positions of low-level work with reduced promotional opportunities, often as a result of lack of skills and experience as well as social barriers which impede engagement in the workplace.

Justene Smith, Disability Specialist at Progression, unpacks the various considerations around disability in the workplace and the important role disability awareness plays in creating accessible and inclusive environments.

Understanding the social context of disability

Historically (and still in our more modern societies), people with disabilities have been marginalised due to limitations caused by their condition, but also by society’s misconceptions of perceived challenges that people with disabilities may pose in their space.  This concept resonates with the medical model of disability which places emphasis on the person’s condition and the limitations that it may present. It is this perception which results in lack of inclusion.

In recent decades there has been a distinct shift towards a new and more inclusive model of disability. This new social model suggests that barriers and limitations for persons with disabilities exist as a result of the way in which our workplaces and societies are organised rather than as a result of the disability.  It further highlights that many of the barriers experienced are attitudinal and emphasises the need to focus on the abilities of an individual rather than the perceived limitations.

These social and attitudinal barriers which are often prevalent in the workplace can be addressed by creating awareness around disability. Empowering people with knowledge allows them to make better business decisions when creating an inclusive and diverse workforce.

Disability awareness facilitates inclusion

Disability awareness in the workplace involves educating the workforce about disability.  The purpose of the awareness is to create a better understanding of disability as a whole in respect of the Employment Equity Act. This can include unpacking some of the different types of disabilities as well as promoting understanding of the impact that language and appropriate etiquette can have in preventing discrimination in the workplace. These awareness drives can be linked to an internal organisational strategy aligned with what is happening in the organisation at the time.

Many myths and stereotypes exist around disability. Just as stereotypes and prejudices are learned over time, unlearning them can take time, gradually altered through addressing and managing discriminatory behaviour.  Identification of discriminatory behaviour is important – discrimination doesn’t always present in negative forms. When growing up our values can result in certain perceptions about people with disabilities.  For example we may believe that a person with a disability will need additional help in the workplace.  If we act on this belief by maybe trying to assist the individual or by reducing their workload and reassigning tasks unnecessarily, without consulting the person first as to what they actually require, we are demonstrating discriminatory behaviour.

Creating a conversation around disability, or any diversity topic for that matter, gives people the opportunity to understand each other. Attitudinal barriers that often lead to discrimination cannot be overcome simply through laws. The best remedy is familiarity – getting people with and without disabilities to mingle as co-workers, associates and social acquaintances. In time, most of the attitudes will give way to comfort, respect and friendship.

Starting the conversation

A long term solution for integration requires a workforce to understand disability is in the workplace context. Creating awareness and starting a conversation in an organisation is the key to overcoming discrimination and needs to be approached with sensitivity and a plan in order to be effective. Justene talks more about the considerations for Building a Disability Awareness Strategy in her next article.

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