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Building more inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities
Author: Armand Bam
Published: 06/12/2021

​Friday (3 December) was the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. In an opinion piece for News24, Dr Armand Bam from the University of Stellenbosch Business School writes that organisations should build more inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities.

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Armand Bam*

The failure of our South African democracy is evidenced through all spheres of our society with the continued exclusion of people with disabilities (PWD). The contribution of PWD to South Africa's radical struggle for civil rights between 1990 and 1994 catapulted our government towards a strategy of integration and inclusion resulting in the delivery of the White Paper on an Integrated National Disability Strategy (1997). According to Danny Sing and Vasi Govender, this was for all intents and purposes the government's vehicle for ensuring the full participation of PWD in the mainstream labour market and public service.

However, today we still witness rising unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities, who conservatively make up 7,5% of our population (Stats SA, 2011). While our country's Constitution is admired globally for its comprehensive approach to facilitating what Karel Vasak called the “three generations" of human rights (political and civil rights; socio-economic rights; and “green rights"), we are no better off today in ensuring the inclusion of PWD in our society. While I advocate for a higher reasoning for the inclusion of all minoritised groups in society, one of the key challenges in South Africa is the lack of a specific and enforceable act to support the policies affecting PWD. This is something that we should keep in mind as we observe the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December.

Legislating for change

Chapter Two of our Constitution addresses the rights of all citizens, including when those rights might be limited. It is our Constitution that guides us all accentuating the legal and moral imperative for ensuring equality amongst all citizens and remedying the ills of our past. It also laid the firm foundations for policies that ensure the rights of PWD to employment. But why then has disability fallen off the agenda of those responsible for ensuring change?

As the new democratic South Africa took shape post-1994, the Ministry in the Office of the President was tasked with addressing the issues of PWD as part of the Reconstruction and Development Programme. The White Paper on Reconstruction and Development clearly articulated the role of government together with PWD in designing a holistic programme to improve their inclusion in society. Following this collaborative effort between government and PWD, the Office on the Status of Disabled People was launched in 1997 and by 1999, disability was rooted firmly within the Presidency. Subsequently, it has become an additional consideration alongside addressing women's, youth, and children's inclusion in society. While not minimising the importance of these other minoritised groups, it is important to consider that people with disabilities whether, women, youth or children experience greater social barriers to inclusion than people without disabilities.

The passing of the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998 (EEA) signified another critical moment in acknowledging the rights of PWD. The EEA recognises disparities in employment, occupation and income within the national labour market that cannot be redressed simply by repealing discriminatory laws because of the pronounced disadvantages that existed for certain PWD. The EEA's intent is to ensure diversity and equity in the labour force and challenges employers to employ previously disadvantaged citizens, including PWD as University of Johannesburg academic Adele Thomas has pointed out. Renowned human rights law expert Charles Ngwena argued that it has governed the employment process, from recruitment to employment, by addressing the legislative requirements and compliance-related markers of the EEA's non-discrimination and affirmative action provisions, labour profiling, policies and procedures and best practices for accommodating PWD.

In support of the EEA, the Skills Development Act No. 97 of 1998; the Skills Development Levies Act; and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 2000 (introduced to curb any unfair discrimination based on race, gender and disability); the Code of Good Practice: Key Aspects on the Employment of People with Disabilities (2002) and the Technical Assistance Guidelines on the Employment of People with Disabilities (2004) all should come together to ensure the inclusion of PWD in the workplace. Yet, the latest Commission of Employment Equity (2021) indicates that across all levels of employment, PWD represent less than 2% of the workforce. Why, after 27 years of democracy, do we not have greater representation of PWD in the workplace?

The Inclusion fallacy

We are guaranteed of diversity in a country like South Africa just by virtue of who we are as a nation — 11 official languages (the adoption of South African Sign Language will take us to 12), beautiful cultural nuances, races, creeds, ethnicities and so much more. Diversity is not our challenge, inclusion is! While we can celebrate the notion of a rainbow nation and the philosophy of Ubuntu, I see too easily how our pride in diversity fades into oblivion as things heat up. The inclusion fallacy befalls as we conflate diversity with what it means to be inclusive. The ability to see the humanity in each one and our connectedness irrespective of our 'apparent differences' evades most of us. This is easily seen in workplace policies that do not dismantle the structural, attitudinal, economic, and environmental barriers that persist for PWD.

People with disabilities are not scorecard objects. They do not just contribute to your diversity targets. They are part of our South African community and do not seek pity or charity but equity in opportunities. It is time that we look at ourselves and our workplaces and assess whether we are truly inclusive. How do we expect to grow an economy when we do not provide opportunities for employment for so many willing and able people? If you have not lived, worked, or socialised with a person with a disability to hear the challenges regarding employment, let me remind you that this is the only minority group you could enter into at any point of your life (for example at birth/congenital or through an accident or otherwise) and so you should consider if your workplace would be prepared to ensure your continued employment if you acquired a disability today? Do your workplace policies promote inclusion or do they only address diversity?

It's time to do the right thing

Workplace diversity and inclusion should firstly be considered as an ethical imperative. I do not suggest that there is a one-size-fits-all model to ensure the inclusion of PWD. What I do propose is that organisations must practice what it means to be good daily. In a recent chapter in Human Centred Organizational Cultures: Global Dimensions (2021), Linda Ronnie and I put forward the application of a virtue framework that upholds the continuous pursuit of moral imperatives for both the individual and the community. We suggested that for virtuous organisations, “the purpose of ethics is not only to have knowledge of what is good, but to be in the habit of doing good things that contribute to the ends of the polis [community]". In virtuous organisations there is the acceptance that doing the right thing depends on context rather than the mere application of a law.

There is an increasing demand in our society for morality in business. As we acknowledge the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we should also call on business leaders to play a more prominent role in restructuring the work environment and improve conditions under which PWD are invited to engage in the workplace.

*Dr Armand Bam is the Head: Social Impact at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.