Enabling the disabled employee at work

PHOTO: Enabling the disabled employee at work

Disabled employees are a still-largely untapped pool of talent that can help fill the manpower shortage in Singapore's increasingly competitive job market.

But the hiring and assimilation process can be daunting for firms that have no experience working with these individuals.

Whether an organisation is new to hiring disabled workers or already has some experience, ethics and emotional quotient are two governing factors to ensure a workplace runs smoothly.

Beyond making sure the offices are accessible - that might mean building a wheelchair ramp - adjustments may also be needed as to how staff think about their colleagues who live with disabilities.

Here are some tips for attracting disabled workers and creating an inclusive environment for all.

1 Moving mountains

Convincing top management to get on board with hiring disabled employees can be an uphill task.

They need the assurance that such an initiative would engender tangible benefits.

This requires the use of hard data, but too much makes presentations impersonal, as the senior leadership team at DLP Division found.

To make their business case sincere, they introduced diversity as one of the pillars of growth and looked into examples of how the company could benefit from embracing diversity.

The lesson: Substantiate presentations with findings from research studies and enliven them with real-life examples that tie back to the company's values and business goals. This makes for a more compelling argument.

2 Changing the culture

An employee may be indifferent to his disabled colleagues, choosing to not interact or work with them directly.

Such behaviour could be misinterpreted as hostility when it simply belies the employee's fear of saying the wrong things. There is a need to train employees on how to be more sensitive.

Disabled workers can also break the ice by sharing with their new colleagues some details about themselves and their disabilities.

When it comes to integrating disabled employees into the team, management must take the lead.

Take Han's, a local chain of restaurants that employs more than 40 employees with disabilities.

Managing director Han Choon Fook starts each morning by greeting disabled workers and helping staff with their duties.

His rationale: Disabled employees feel happy working in an environment where the boss is willing to help.

By walking the talk, Mr Han sends a strong message that disabled workers should be treated the same as other employees.

Human resource personnel should also raise the company's profile as one friendly to disabled employees. A good example is auditor KPMG, which frequently profiles professionals with disabilities on its intranet site.

The company also participates in conferences, where it shares approaches and lessons on supporting people with disabilities.

Such visibility and recognition will encourage other disabled persons to join the company.

3 Reviewing hiring strategies

If hiring disabled employees is a novel initiative, then a new recruitment approach is needed to achieve the desired outcomes.

Traditional recruiting methods such as job ads and job fair booths may prove ineffective.

The visually-impaired may have difficulties finding help to read ads and wheelchair users may avoid job fairs altogether due to accessibility problems.

Firms can partner educational and community organisations and disability support groups to suss out the right connections.

These entities work closely with the disabled and are the best people to recommend and support someone with special needs on the job.

4 Setting expectations

Disabled employees must be held to the same productivity standards expected of their colleagues.

Lowering expectations would come across as discriminatory in addition to sowing discord between staff.

Remember, disabled professionals are not any less competent; they just have special needs.

Employees with disabilities can take the initiative to ask for an open discussion about their concerns.

Their supervisors should then draw up policies to cater to these needs without compromising on the standards of work.

5 A continuous pursuit

Creating and maintaining offices that are a safe workplace for disabled employees will require constant evaluation of policies and practices to suit changing needs.

Honest communication about what works and what does not is necessary. Both employers and employees must be willing to earnestly assess the effectiveness of the initiatives implemented.

Employers have to be tactful and probe the issues without being invasive.

Conversely, employees with disabilities should not view gaps as lapses in management's efforts; rather, they are opportunities for improvement.

The writer is the chief executive officer of Verztec Consulting, a communications consultancy.

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