People with disabilities - a valuable asset in the workplace
South Africa, like most countries, needs every skilled worker to contribute towards the prosperity of the country. Persons with disabilities have an important role to play to make a positive contribution in the workplace. It is generally found that a person with a disability develops into a well-adjusted, productive worker in an atmosphere of acceptance, co-operation and goodwill. It is often found that workers with disabilities are more productive than their co-workers and that they are less absent from work and shows great loyalty towards their company.
Far more people with disabilities should be given the opportunity to enter the workforce. Disability is a human rights and development issue, meaning that people with disabilities should enjoy equal rights and responsibilities to other people.
Removing the barriers
Technological advances have removed many obstacles for disabled people in their aspirations to pursue the careers of their choice.
Many visually, hearing and physically impaired persons excel in the field of computer technology. Blind and partially sighted lawyers are now a reality due to computer developments. Various blind physiotherapists have their own, very successful, practices in this country. There are blind lecturers, music teachers and marketing consultants to name but a few careers. Visually impaired persons can also do manual jobs such as making bricks and tiles.
Deaf and hard of hearing people are often successful in noisy jobs, such as panel beating, which may have a negative effect on hearing people. Careers as different as forestry, graphic art, medical technology and banking are also successfully pursued by hearing impaired people.
People with physical disabilities are successful in many careers including teaching, social work, business management and many others. Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known, yet he is quadriplegic and can only speak with the aid of a computer. He freely admits that he has reached the top in his field because of and not in spite of his disability.
Many barriers, such as widespread ignorance and stereotypes, have caused people with disabilities to be unfairly discriminated against in society and in employment. For these reasons, people with disabilities are a designated group in terms of the Employment Equity Act, 1998. The purpose of this Act is to remove unfair discrimination and to promote equity in the workplace. This Act protects people with disabilities and others against unfair discrimination and, as a previously disadvantaged group, disabled people are eligible to benefit from affirmative action programmes.
The Minister of Labour has also approved a Code of Good Practice on the Employment of People with Disabilities in terms of the Employment Equity Act. The Code is a guide for employers and workers to encourage equal opportunities and fair treatment of people with disabilities. It also helps to create awareness of the contributions that people with disabilities can make in the workplace.
Definition of “People with Disabilities”
In terms of the Employment Equity Act, the focus is on the effect of a disability on the person in relation to the working environment, and not on the impairment. The Act defines people with disabilities as “people who have a long-term or recurring physical or mental impairment, which substantially limits their prospects of entry into, or advancement in, employment.”
Affirmative Action refers to specific measures undertaken by an employer to ensure that suitably qualified people from designated groups have equal employment opportunities and are equally represented in all occupational categories and levels in the workplace. Such measures include providing reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities to provide an enabling work environment.
Confidentiality and disclosure
All persons have the right of privacy and, therefore, no person is obliged to inform their employer of a disability or impairment. However, should the impact of the disability be such that reasonable accommodation is needed, it will be to the advantage of the applicant or employee to disclose their disability.
All designated employers should “reasonably accommodate the needs of people with disabilities.” This is both a non-discrimination and an affirmative action requirement. The aim of this accommodation is to enable the person to perform the essential functions of the job. Reasonable accommodation, which refers to modifications or alterations to the way a job is normally performed, should make it possible for a suitably qualified person with a disability to perform as everyone else. The type of reasonable accommodation required would depend on the job and its essential functions, the work environment and the person’s specific impairment.
Reasonable accommodation measures may include:
- Making the workplace more accessible according to the person’s needs, for example the removal of physical barriers. Existing facilities can be adapted to make them accessible e.g. building a ramp to ensure wheelchair access and making toilets accessible. Lifts must be equipped with special numbering for blind persons. Very often, only minor adjustments are necessary to make a disabled person’s workplace accessible and to ensure that he/she is an independent employee.
- Access to information and technology is very important. This includes adapting existing or acquiring new equipment, e.g. computer hardware and software. Visually impaired persons may require voice input/output software or magnifying software. Excellent hearing aids are available on the market today that will increase a hearing impaired person’s ability to communicate.
If the job requires action to be taken in response to a signal or sign and the relevant sense is impaired, for example vision, the signal may be converted for another sense and a bell sound may be used instead. Likewise, in the case of hearing impaired persons, a bell sound can be replaced with a signal light flasher. These modifications are usually easily incorporated in, or added to, existing machines.
- Re-organising workstations to ensure that people with disabilities can work effectively and efficiently for example adjusting work schedules, if necessary.
- Changing training and assessment materials and processes e.g. providing training materials on request in electronic format, Braille or on tape for people with visual disabilities.
When is an employer obliged to provide reasonable accommodation?
The obligation to make reasonable accommodation available, may arise when an applicant or employee voluntary discloses a disability related accommodation need, or when such a need is self-evident to the employer. The employer should consult the employee and, where reasonable and practical, also consult technical experts for advice.
Guidelines for people with disabilities when reasonable accommodation is required
- Be able to explain in your own words the type of accommodation that you require relating to the specific nature, degree and severity of your disability.
- Take responsibility to ask for accommodation if you should require any.
- Know that you have the right to ask for accommodation at any stage of the employment process.
- Make the final decision about the type of accommodation that you require, but be responsible enough to know that it must be a viable option for both yourself and the employer.
Medical and psychometric assessments
Medical and psychological testing should comply with the requirements of the Employment Equity Act and must be relevant and appropriate to the work for which the person is being tested. Psychometric tests must be administered that are valid and reliable, can be applied fairly to all workers and is not biased against any worker or group.
Medical testing to determine the health status of a person, should only be carried out after the employer has established that the person is competent to perform the essential job functions.
If you are required to undergo psychometric testing, enquire about the different purposes for which you will be tested and request the necessary accommodation to enable you to be tested.
Health and safety
According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the employer must provide and maintain a working environment that is safe to all employees and the needs of employees with disabilities must be included. Evacuation procedures should take into account any specific or additional measures to ensure that an employee with a disability is safely evacuated from a building or work site during emergencies.
The employer is required to ensure the retention of existing staff with disabilities through rehabilitation, training or any other appropriate measure. Where an existing employee becomes disabled, the employer must ensure that the employee remains in his/her job before considering alternatives, for example re-deployment. Based on operational requirements, the employer must give objective consideration to requests from employees with disabilities for reduced, part-time or alternative duties.
Tips for work-seekers with disabilities
If you have a disability, you know it may affect a potential employer’s attitude towards you and the employer may have some concerns. It is up to you to show prospective employers that, despite your disability, you are a suitable candidate for the job.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when searching for work:
- Have you organised and planned your job search? Use a variety of job hunting techniques instead of just looking at newspaper advertisements.
- Do research to identify potential work opportunities in your area.
- Identify people who might be aware of prospective employers and can help you to find a job.
- Compile a comprehensive CV. You can find information about writing your CV in bookstores, libraries and on the internet.
- Remember that the more potential employers you meet, the better your chances will be of getting the job you want.
- If you have applied for a job, follow up with a phone call to confirm that the employer received your application form and CV.
- Know your own capabilities and limitations.
- You must know what the job entails for which you apply and what you can contribute towards achieving the goals of the company.
- Prepare well for a job interview.
- Find out where the company is situated well in advance.
- Dress appropriately.
- Arrive 15 minutes earlier.
- Present yourself in the most positive manner. Your aim must be to “market” yourself as a suitable candidate for the job.
- Make the interview easy for the employer and be confident.
- Be honest.
- Decide when to disclose your disability.
- Know what technologies can help you work effectively, how much they cost and where they can be obtained.
- Know your rights and familiarise yourself with current legislation.
- Don’t let past failures affect you negatively.
An employee may sustain a partial, temporary or permanent disability in the course of his/her employment and may require assistance from the employer to access compensation. Such an employee may be entitled to compensation in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, 1993.
The main objective of the Compensation Fund is to provide for compensation for disablement caused by occupational injuries or diseases, sustained or contracted by workers during the course of their work, or for death resulting from such injuries or diseases.
Employees must report all workplace accidents to the Compensation Fund in terms of the law. The nearest office of the Department of Labour should be contacted for assistance.
Only employers contribute financially to the Compensation Fund.
If an employee has a temporary disability (an injury that gets better), an employee will receive 75% of his/her salary for the time that he/she is unfit for duty.
If an employee has a permanent disability (a disability for the rest of the employee’s life), an assessment of the disability will be done in accordance with the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act. If the disability is assessed to be 30% or less, a once-off lump sum payment will be made for the injury.
If the disability is assessed and is more than 30%, the employee will receive a monthly pension for life. The amount of this pension is calculated on the employee’s salary at the time of the accident, the percentage of disability and the benefits applicable at the time of the accident.
The importance of education and awareness and the role of people with disabilities
The only way to overcome fears, myths and negative attitudes about the
abilities of employees and applicants with disabilities, is through vigorous education and training within the private and public sectors. Furthermore, the experience has shown that people with disabilities are the best qualified persons to be the drivers of such education and awareness programmes.
Guidelines for people with disabilities
- Play a lead role in creating awareness in the workplace.
- Guide the development of all awareness programmes in the workplace.
- Consider becoming members of trade unions and any representative structure within the workplace in order to create hands on disability awareness training.
Do you need assistance with placement services?
The Department of Labour established Labour Centres across the country to provide employment services. If you are a person with a disability, you can register as unemployed and be assisted with a job/learning opportunity and if you are an employer, you can be assisted with people with disabilities, to fill your opportunities for designated groups. Please contact your nearest Labour Centre for free assistance.
- Formeset Printers: Technical Assistance Guidelines on the Employment of People with Disabilities. Pretoria, Department of Labour, 2004.
- Government Printers: Employee Assistance Programme: Employing and Managing People with Disabilities. Johannesburg, Services SETA, 2004.
- The Republic of South Africa’s Employment Equity Act (no. 55 of 1998), available from www.labour.gov.za.
- The Republic of South Africa’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (no. 85 of 1993), available from www.labour.gov.za.
- The Republic of South Africa’s Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (no.130 of 1993), available from www.labour.gov.za.