Enabling the differently abled: How inclusive are India’s workplaces?
While organisations are making conscious efforts in inclusion by helping people with disability, finding the right job and issues such as better infrastructure, training costs and other facilities remain a challenge.
Dawinder Singh was left bedridden for five years due to a spinal cord injury. He was just 23 then. A graduate of the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, Dawinder’s health further deteriorated due to pressure sores and other allied complications, leaving him demoralised. His studies came to a standstill, while the treatment drained his family’s financial resources.
To help him spend time resourcefully, his doctor advised him to get a computer. Dawinder’s determination to become independent drove him to study IT and learn about CRM systems, ecommerce, and internet service provider setups.
“It is very important for people with disabilities to work. Nobody gives you anything, not even a free advice, then how can we expect someone will give financial aid to the specially abled? The specially abled must start working, even if they are earning Rs 1,000 per month. At least they can live a life with self-respect and that economic independence is actually real empowerment,” he says.
This belief drove him to start his entrepreneurial venture, 9gem.com, an ecommerce platform, which exports gemstones from around the globe. He says that regular employment remains elusive to people with disability since companies fail to “recognise their worth,” and limit their employment opportunities and job portfolios.
India is home to 2.7 crore people with disability, which includes both physical and mental disability, according to the 2011 Census. While the Central government had, in 1995, mandated three percent reservation in all public sector jobs for the differently abled, a 2007 World Bank report titled, ‘People with Disabilities in India: From Commitments to Outcomes,’ said the employment rate of disability had fallen to 37.6 percent in 2002 from 42.7 percent in 1991.
“Specially abled are used as puppets by the companies to show that they are a socially responsible company, even if they are employing one person. They are not given bigger responsibilities or promotions,” says Dawinder.
Disability, more often than not, is associated with incapacity, inadequacy, negative imagery and stereotypes. With such social attitudes, people with disabilities (PwD) find it difficult to break this vicious circle of lack of education, skills, low confidence, low employability and poor economic status.
However, advancements in technology have given a strong sense of hope to PwD, and companies are becoming more conscious of the need to create a diverse and inclusive workplace.
Technology to the rescue
Assistive technological solutions have been a game-changer for PwD. They have opened up job opportunities for the differently-abled, something that was not viable earlier.
For instance, Ashwin Karthik, who graduated as India’s first engineer with Cerebral Palsy, says,
“There are numerous examples of how technology has empowered me. Earlier, I couldn’t take a phone call on my own. However, with the advent of Bluetooth, I now hold meetings on my phone.” He is presently working as a Business Analyst with ANZ.
Usha Mishra, Managing Trustee of Nabet India, an organisation that is working to provide job opportunities for the visually impaired, believes that technology and the IT sector does not differentiate its users on the basis of their psychical capabilities.
With a dynamic course curriculum, the Nabet team constantly updated its content to meet specific industry demands. The training-cum-employment programme offers basic computer application. Specific courses are conducted to make the trainees job-ready.
“Moreover, it is a sector which is accident-free and ideally suited for the visually impaired. Many technological advancements such as development of special screen reader software and assistive devices have made training and performance of tasks easier than before,” she adds.
Non-profit organisations such as Enable India, NabetIndia, and v-Sesh, have created a dedicated PwD referral programme and built strong partnerships with various organisations. These include companies such as The Practice, Pratham Motors, ANZ Supportive Services India Pvt Ltd, Ernst & Young GSS (India) Pvt Ltd, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Nafex.com, Deutsche Bank, among others.
NGOs have helped these companies to acquire a strong talent pool, training support and all the required know-how for hiring PwD.
Moses Chowdari Gorrepati, Program Manager of Enable India, says, “There is certainly an increase in the awareness among employers about hiring PwD.”
However, companies are still apprehensive about hiring people who are visually impaired or hearing impaired. The key concern being how these people would fit into a workplace.
“We offer different services like Inclusive and Adaptive Leadership Workshop for senior leaders, Disability Sensitization Workshop, Peer Sensitization Workshop for peers who will work with employees with disabilities, Handholding Services through the interview and on-boarding process etc. to help employers gain confidence to take the hiring agenda forward,” says Moses.
“In fact, organisations who have succeeded in hiring persons with disabilities most often come back to hire more,” he adds.
Moses is also the recipient of the 19th NCPEDP-Mindtree Helen Keller Awards, 2018, and has been recognised for his contribution for enabling employment for people with disabilities.
A 2017 study shows that in the last six years, 80 percent of eligible PwDs have been promoted, and 20 percent have received double promotions. Further, there has been minimal attrition among employees with disabilities.
Finding the right job
Forty-three-year-old Prasanth Kamath defies all stereotypes associated with cerebral palsy. Prasanth not only completed his BCom, but is now a celebrated mobile application developer. Battling his ‘spastic’ condition, wherein his body experiences involuntary movements, Prashanth has managed to work full-time with Mindtree for over a decade and is a part-time share investor.
“When I joined Mindtree, they couldn’t figure out where to put me. I was in HR, but I did not like it much. Even now I like doing technical work. For about two years, I continued with HR, and then I got a chance to work with Subroto Bagchi. I proof read one of his books,” he says.
Often, companies just don't know which job profile would suit people with disabilities and hence opportunities for this community remains confined.
"Business is a microcosm of our society, and the society hasn’t been very inclusive so far. So this creates a lot anxiety among them. The questions are how will they do it, how will they adjust,” says BS Nagesh, Founder, Trust for Retailers & Retail Associates of India.
Advocating for PwD employment in the retail sector, Nagesh believes this industry doesn’t require highly educated people for the entry-level job.
In the retail sector, initially, there were only three to five companies who were actively employing PwDs such as Pizza Hut, Dominoes, and Café Coffee Day. But, in the last seven years, about 500+ retailers have started to employ within the socially abled community.
Further, over 150-odd companies, including Vishal Megamart, D-Mart, and Landmark, have started an inclusive work policy, which also includes providing infrastructure support. Besides, they hold sign language classes and also sensitise other employees on the needs of PwDs.
A long road to inclusion
While more organisations in India are making conscious efforts to adopt practices and policies that are inclusive, the employment of PwD remains a challenge due to the lack of awareness and ranks low on an organisational priority.
Organisations are unwilling to invest in the infrastructure, training costs and other facilities that enable PwD.
“Despite there being qualified and capable PwD, a large percentage of them are still unemployed. The challenge lies in the constructs of our society. These range from lack of education to limited access to resources. People with disabilities often fear discrimination and prejudice,” Moses says.
There is a huge pool of untapped potential talent that will help India to grow through innovation and creativity. By including PwD in the workforce, they can contribute to the economy through positive social progress.