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Disability Rights Awareness Month

November 25 2019 By Zarina Bulbulia

The 3rd of November to the 3rd of December marks National Disability Rights Awareness Month in South Africa, with the International Day of Persons with Disabilities being commemorated on 3 December.This year's theme is: "Together building South Africa inclusive of Disability Rights"
Progression appeals to all South African organisations, large and small, to recognise persons with disabilities as valuable and important members of your workforce. This month is an important one for all South Africans and provides us with an opportunity to celebrate and bring awareness to persons with disabilities.
We encourage organisations to embrace this commemorative month as an opportunity to create awareness and acceptance of disability in the workplace. Despite the ongoing effort to introduce disability into the workplace, many people with disabilities still face discrimination when accessing the open labour market. In fact, only 1% have managed to secure a job.
Of this 1% 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. What better time to do so than during National Disability Rights Awareness Month?
 
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. Launching an awareness drive during National Disability Rights Awareness Month, where disability is highlighted in the media and other organisations, will increase employee buy-in and campaign success.
Many myths and stereotypes exist around disability. Just as stereotypes and prejudices are learned over time, unlearning them can take time, and beliefs and attitudes can gradually be 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 perhaps 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. Hosting an event during DRAM, such as a "Disability Day", can be a starting point for initiating such conversations and interactions.
 
Starting the conversation
A long-term solution for integration requires a workforce to understand disability 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. 
Progression urges organisations to use DRAM as an opportunity to develop a "Disability Awareness Strategy" as a way of creating an inclusive, accepting, empowered and informed workforce. Justene unpacks some important considerations for organisations when building an effective Disability Awareness Strategy:
 
1. What does my organisation want to achieve?
Disability awareness can be implemented for many purposes, depending on the desired outcomes of the organisation. Disability awareness can focus on sharing basic information about disability, it could be used to capacity-build managers to better understand disability and manage this in a more proactive and effective way going forward and to implement their own awareness in the future, or it could assist in preparing a workplace in anticipation of a Disability Disclosure Audit.
Setting clear and concise outcomes that talk to all areas of the business is very important. In addition, companies need to be mindful of the culture and attitudes within the business during the strategy development phase. Communication around disability will only be as effective as the methods used to deliver the awareness. Depending on the company's communication tools, delivery could include workshops with staff, digital awareness animations, posters, brochures, questionnaires or industrial theatre, to name a few.
 
2. Ensure consistency and continuity, keeping disability top of mind
As with any communication strategy, consistency and continuity are key to ensuring that the message is not only delivered, but remembered and actioned. The same goes for disability awareness in the workplace. Very often organisations will focus on running awareness workshops as a once-off occurrence; while this is a good introduction to disability, the message is often forgotten soon after and people revert to their ingrained habits or behaviours. Instead, organisations need to build an awareness strategy that focuses on constant and consistent communication with their workforce, while at the same time ensuring that they are developing an ongoing strategy for management to keep this ball rolling. It would be beneficial to look at disability awareness as being a part of induction for new staff members.
Consider developing a by-line, hashtag or logo around disability that will be used on all internal communications. Ensure that you make good use of your social media platforms, as well as any other platforms that you may have, to accelerate your awareness campaign.
 
3. Develop and manage tools to support the process
Considering that disability is part of normal human experience, it makes sense that an organisation should have tools in place that support an inclusive and accessible workplace. Disability must therefore be incorporated into all personnel planning and management with a 'business as usual' approach.  Practical issues such as policies and procedures within the organisation need to be considered, as well as a chain of communication for questions pertaining to disability. Helplines, disability desks or forums, as well as sound and inclusive policies that make provision for disability and which are clearly communicated and accessible for all employees, are all means of ensuring that it's not just 'talk, talk, talk.'
Capacity-building internal staff members to proactively manage disability and be equipped with the information and knowledge needed to answer questions around disability is vital.
 
4. Leverage off existing awareness days
The annual National Disability Rights Awareness Month (3 Nov to 3 Dec) is one of many awareness campaigns in South Africa. There are a number of specific days, weeks and sometimes months linked to disability and the various conditions recognised as a disability. For example Casual Day, which generally falls on the first Friday of September, World Mental Health Day (10 October) and National Epilepsy Week (21 - 27 June) are all acknowledged and celebrated in South Africa. A full list of Health Awareness Days is available on the South African Government website. Linking disability awareness to these national or international awareness drives can be a good platform for creating awareness within an organisation, helping to solidify the message within the company. Companies need to build processes into their disability awareness strategies that facilitate regular discussion and communication campaigns around disability.
 
5. Working with a third party consultant
By utilising specialists, such as Progression, an organisation can leverage expert knowledge and experience and also provide an objective third-party that employees can engage with. This can help to maintain trust and ensure that people feel that they have a 'safe space' to disclose their concerns and have their questions answered. Lastly, specialists are able to advise an organisation on the best way forward in managing the outcomes of the awareness campaign.
By fully embracing DRAM as an opportunity to empower people with disabilities, considering people with disabilities when recruiting and allocating your skills spend, and fostering an environment that celebrates and accepts disability, perhaps we can change the lives of many more people with disabilities.

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