July 15, 2024

Rudi van Blerk


Employers that acknowledge and accommodate talented and industrious employees with disabilities will find it pays off handsomely. Not only does it make a wider pool of talent available for recruitment, but it also supports employee productivity and retention.

Technological developments have made it even easier to create such an environment.

According to an International Labour Organisation (ILO) report (“An inclusive digital economy for people with disabilities”), the technological revolution that was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic has created new jobs, made certain occupations obsolete, and changed traditional jobs and recruitment processes. Digital tools enable people with disabilities to access employment through online recruitment platforms and can support them in their daily tasks at work. Special assistive technologies can help persons with disabilities work and build a career on an equal footing with their colleagues.

But if a person with a disability does not possess the necessary skills or digital tools are inaccessible or unaffordable, they are at risk of being left behind. For these reasons, the ILO notes that a person with a disability in developing countries is at a greater disadvantage than in developed countries.


Hiding disability

 There’s a significant gap between employers’ tally of their disabled employees and the actual number. According to a survey by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) across 16 countries and various industries, 25% of employees said they had a disability. In SA, the figure was 24%. But on average, across the world, employers report only 4-7% of employees are persons with disabilities. That means employers are potentially ignoring the needs of almost a quarter of their workforce.


In SA, 46% of persons with disabilities who had not disclosed their disability said it was because they feared discrimination and bias, and 54% of persons with disabilities who had disclosed it said they had personally experienced discrimination.

BCG has developed a tool to measure employees’ sense of inclusion called the BLISS Index (Bias-Free, Leadership, Inclusion, Safety and Support). In SA, persons with disability’s BLISS score was four points lower than their non-disabled peers. In practice, if an organisation of 1,000 people can close the gap in the BLISS Score, it can retain 20 more employees.

Persons with disabilities generally also report lower levels of inclusion than other groups that are the focus of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts: women, the LGBTQ+ community and historically disadvantaged individuals.

If employers are unaware of persons with disabilities’ difficulties, it is impossible to put appropriate policies in place.

Tackling the problem

 BCG recommends that employers foster greater inclusion by implementing employee-centric policies and programmes, mentorships, and reasonable accommodations. At organisations that possess these tools, employees feel safer about disclosing their disability.

Some of the policies that assist persons with disabilities benefit all employees, such as the ability to work from home part of the time and access wellness services. Suppose flexible or hybrid working arrangements are available to all employees. In that case, it destigmatises those arrangements for persons with disabilities and frees them of the necessity to produce medical certificates to justify them.

The ILO gives examples of technological developments that can assist persons with disabilities in the workplace. For example, AI is learning how to respond to images, sounds and facial expressions. Tools like auto-captioning with AI and autonomous cars present great opportunities for persons with disabilities.

Mentorships acknowledge persons with disabilities that the employer has noticed them and their aspirations and matches them with someone who can help them fulfil them. The average global BLISS score for persons with disabilities with a mentor is eight points higher than for those without a mentor.

BLISS scores also improve significantly when the employer makes reasonable accommodations, such as providing particular equipment or software, flexible working or adjustments to the physical environment. In these workplaces, the BLISS score of persons with disabilities was 17 points higher than those whose requests were denied.

According to the Job Accommodation Network in the US (part of the Department of Labour), 56% of those who provided accommodation said it cost nothing, and others said it only cost an extra $500 on average. Providing reasonable accommodation ensures that all employees, including persons with disabilities, have what they need to be productive, efficient and effective at work.

Persons with disabilities who do not disclose their disability are significantly less likely to have their request for accommodation met, which is further evidence of the importance of providing an environment where disability can be disclosed without prejudice.


 Aside from the policy steps that BCG recommends, some of the ILO’s recommendations for employers are to review talent acquisition programmes to target persons with disabilities to fill digital gaps, ensure general training is available to all employees, and use digital tools to adapt workplaces and ensure that digital platforms, tools and processes are accessible.

No employer can afford to ignore or misunderstand about a quarter of employees. Taking practical steps to get high-impact results is possible, resulting in a happier, more productive, loyal workforce.

Edited version of original article by Rudi van Blerk, Partner and Africa People and Organisation Practice Lead at Boston Consulting Group, Johannesburg

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