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International disabilities awareness day (3 Dec): Ensure workplace is universally accessible for visitors and staff

Each year, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities and the National Disability Rights Awareness Day is commemorated on 3 December. The aim of this annual event is to promote an understanding of disability issues, the rights of persons with disabilities and gains that companies can derive from integrating disabled persons into their day-to-day operations by actively removing barriers to entry.

The global theme for 2020 is: “Not all Disabilities are Visible”, and this year the focus falls on spreading awareness and understanding of disabilities that are not immediately apparent, such as mental illness, chronic pain or fatigue, sight or hearing impairments, diabetes, brain injuries, neurological disorders, learning differences and cognitive dysfunctions to mention but a few.

Sensitising corporate and commercial spaces to the needs of the disabled

“Approximately 5 million (or 1 in ten) South Africans are disabled. Sadly, however, they make up less than 1% of the country’s workforce. Apart from having to contend with prejudices, ignorance, fear and stereotyping, most workspaces and public places fail to accommodate their needs. This makes it even harder for them to contribute to the economy and compete fairly in the job market,” says Andre Michau, Director of Afroteq Advisory, who himself has an immediate family member that is disabled.

As specialist advisors to the built environment, Afroteq Advisory (a wholly-owned subsidiary of AFMS Group) assists companies in transforming their workplaces into spaces that are accessible, safe and welcoming to differently abled employees and visitors. With their expert knowledge of workflow, strategic space planning and design and understanding of spatial needs, Afroteq Advisory conducts accessibility audits in order to evaluate companies’ universal access and compliance to legislation.

“We are urging businesses to take a critical look at their office space and judge it from the perspective of somebody who is disabled and taking a multitude of disabilities into consideration. Apart from the obvious things, such as parking spaces and ramps leading up to the entrance of the building, are you doing enough to create an inclusive atmosphere and encourage equal access for people to join your workforce?” Michau challenged.

Benefits of employing persons with disabilities

Employers who successfully accommodate persons with disabilities stand to benefit greatly from their unique talent, work ethic and drive to make a positive contribution to the workplace. Not only can they assist the organisation achieve its core business objectives, but also help the company be more socially responsible by positioning the challenges persons with disabilities face as a mainstream policy and development issue.

“A person with a disability develops into a well-adjusted, productive worker if he or she works in a corporate atmosphere that is accepting, accommodating and where they experience a welcoming sense of co-operation and goodwill. Many blue chip companies who have benefited from the inclusion of persons with disabilities in their workforce, such as Accenture, Accor, IBM, L’Oréal, Novartis, Old Mutual, Sanlam, Momentum Metropolitan Holdings Limited (formerly MMI Holdings Limited) and Standard Bank all agree that employing persons with disabilities is not only beneficial, but a must for competitive businesses” Michau says. He adds that companies who are known for being socially sensitive, responsible and caring employers, typically tend to attract and retain the best talent in the market.

Employing people with disabilities not only help to create workplaces that are more inclusive, but also offer various distinct advantages to companies, such as:

  • A competitive edge: In a highly competitive and rapidly-changing business environment, the ability to hire, retain and develop a diverse workforce gives business a competitive edge as it allows businesses to be more creative and more responsive to the diverse needs of the market.
  • New business opportunities: The inclusion of persons with disabilities in the workforce improves understanding of how customers with disabilities think, what drives their spending habits, and how to access this important and valuable sector.
  • New products and services: By developing products, or introducing product modifications and services that will appeal to the disabled market, many companies have gained a leadership position in mainstream markets. Examples include the development of voice command technology which was first developed for persons with disabilities, and is now used in GPS navigational devices, cars, computers, and hands-free phones.
  • Enhanced creativity: Employing differently abled brings a fresh perspective to the decision-making process. Diverse work teams are more innovative and creative and less inclined to a unilateral view.
  • Improved opportunities to do business with the government: The South African government is increasingly looking to do business with companies that they know are acting in accordance with the CRPD. Employing persons with disabilities can assist companies to meet their Employment Equity targets, Corporate Social Initiatives (CSI) and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) targets.
  • Meeting of legal obligations and managing risk: By complying with labour provisions that provide for the rights of persons with disabilities, businesses avoid being in contravention of the law and can avoid receiving a complaint alleging unlawful disability discrimination.
  • Maximised savings and reduced costs: Contrary to popular belief, employing persons with disabilities outweighs the costs of any reasonable accommodation that the employer may need to make along the way. It in effect, over time, maximises savings and reduces costs.
  • Financial incentives: Employers can benefit from a number of government incentives (i.e. financial incentives, training support and workplace modification support) aimed at encouraging the employment of persons with a disability. Employers can claim tax deductions from the South African Revenue Services (SARS) for an individual with disability during learnership.

Ensuring your workplace caters for the disabled employees and visitors

Although most new developments do build in measures to allow for universal accessibility, Michau laments the fact that often these measures end up being more a hindrance than a help. Typical examples are a multi-story company that only has one disabled toilet, or having a disabled toilet inside the general toilet facilities which is only accessible through a normal door. According to Afroteq Advisory, there are several considerations that companies need to be aware of in order to create universal access to public and corporate spaces. These include:

  • Ensure the paths of travel to the entrance and exits of buildings are clear and allow for a path that is continuously accessible without any barriers that could make it difficult for a person with a disability to navigate.
  • Try to avoid things like steps, steep inclines, escalators, bollards, turnstiles, revolving doors, uneven or loose surfaces, display boards or bins as these could hamper a disabled person’s ability to get around safely. Install doors which can slide open and closed electronically
  • Lighting should be adequate order to assist people with a vision impairment to follow the safest pathway and to assist with communication, for example for those using sign language or who might lip-read. Where possible, incorporate brail signage for the visually impaired.
  • If you have a lift installed, check that it is it large enough to allow someone using a wheelchair or walking frame to enter and move around.
  • In the conference rooms and work areas, it is important to ensure that the design and layout of the space make it easy for persons with disabilities to access the facilities. Chairs and tables should be adjustable or, if they are fixed, companies should ensure that there are wide enough spaces to allow for people using wheelchairs.

“Statistics pertaining to the employment of people with disabilities in South Africa, indicate that the country is falling far short of the national target and international benchmarks. Despite the obvious benefits, South Africa still has a long way to go when it comes to levelling the playing field and creating an inclusive environment for people living with disabilities. It is not just about “ticking a box”. It is about being mindful to transform places of work and public spaces so that they are truly accommodating to everybody’s needs. This is an important step forward that South Africa has to take collectively and Afroteq Advisory is on hand to assist with this process!” Michau concludes.

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