Disability inclusion: Some bright spots, but a long way to go for most

Bhavesh Mehta, 54, had locomotive disability in the left leg due to polio infection since the age of two. Life was tough as Mehta had to undergo five surgeries to rectify his leg and had no stable job. But things changed for the better after joining Accenture in 2006. Mehta, now a procurement category manager, says Accenture gave him a lot of training opportunities and promoted him twice.

Balachandra Hegde, 48, lost his left leg in 1987, at the age of 14, when a blade of a grass-cutting machine that rotated at 2,500 RPM speed flew off due to a technical fault and cut his leg. Hegde, who is vice-president and Lead, software, at Wells Fargo, says workplaces are changing.

“Companies now have an equal opportunity policy. They are far more inclusive and understanding of the needs of people with special abilities. A lot depends on a person’s own motivation and zeal to succeed,” says Hegde, who has worked with JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs in the past.

Mehta and Hegde should count themselves lucky. A majority of private sector companies still have a long way to go in being inclusive in their approach. According to a study by jobs portal Indeed in March this year, only one in five organisations or less employ LGBTIQ+ and people with disabilities (PWD).

Experts say there are several myths associated with hiring PWDs, from them not being able to meet performance standards to needing more sick leaves. These are, however, not backed by data.

This is despite data that shows companies that are working successfully towards disability have also achieved tangible financial benefits. For example, studies done in the US by Accenture Research has shown such companies are growing sales 2.9 times faster and profits 4.1 times faster than their peers.

A majority of companies not having a concrete plan on employing PWDs is alarming, because the last official data available on them from the 2011 Census shows that there are 26.8 million people in the country, forming 2.2% of the population. The proportion might look small, but to put this in perspective—it is more than the entire population of Australia and several European nations, and, therefore, significantly high to be ignored or refrained from contributing to India’s economy.
Some of India’s large companies say there is a definite shift in mindset, and that they are hiring PWDs and making their workplaces disabled-friendly.

Vidya Lakshmi, executive vice-president and head of HR, Wells Fargo India & Philippines, says, “This is a significant size of talent pool for any organisation to tap into, so the business case is straightforward from both a talent attraction and business value standpoint.”

Wells Fargo says that it started hiring PWDs e in 2017 and the number has grown significantly since then.

Wells Fargo employs them in mainstream roles that contribute to the growth of the company and businesses across various lines of businesses and levels — from technology, operations to human resources and risk.

In 2013, SAP Labs India started ‘Autism at Work’ programme, which prioritised recruiting applicants who are differently abled. Sindhu Gangadharan, senior vice-president and managing director, SAP Labs India, says, “By making neurodiversity a priority, we are fostering a more inclusive workplace.”

Diageo India through ‘Project Saksham’ is providing long-term support for the employment and development of people with special abilities in its supply chain functions. Aarif Aziz, chief human resource officer, Diageo India, says, “We have 40 employees with special abilities across four manufacturing units. ‘Project Saksham’ has helped boost their confidence, enhanced soft skills, and given these employees an opportunity to contribute to the manufacturing process.”

Accenture says that it has been hiring and growing persons with special abilities and leveraged technology to create a barrier free workplace. The IT major provides assisted technologies and also any ergonomic adjustments that such employees would need to facilitate their life and work. The company also has accessibility centres of excellence, where people can choose the right kind of enablement devices they need after experiencing them.

Lakshmi C, managing director and lead (human resources), Accenture in India, says, “We have created internship programmes that boost employability among persons with disabilities, and also work with ecosystem partners, including non-profits, to support skill building in persons with disabilities to make them employable for the digital economy.”

However, despite the efforts, organisations highlight that there are challenges to participation of PWDs in the workforce. “The database of skilled PwDs is not centralised, hence the journey in the space has been incremental over the years,” says Lakshmi of Wells Fargo.

Anita Iyer Narayan, managing trustee at Ekansh says that there is a need for sensitisation towards differently abled people across all stakeholders. “We can only use the standardised guidelines to make sure places are accessible. Most international companies are at least making an effort to ensure that their premises and workshops are accessible, and ready to hire. However, there is a dearth of qualified candidates due to lack of investments in training, and need for inclusive and integrated education.” Ekansh is working towards the inclusion and empowerment of persons with special abilities.

Some HR experts say there is an added advantage of hiring PWDs – they are less likely to leave the job, because the opportunities are limited at present. Also, PWDs holding senior positions are a great source of inspiration for others. Their story of struggles and success also send a message that the organisation cares for its people. That intangible gain is priceless.

(With inputs from Geeta Nair in Pune)

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