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Disability inclusion in workforce: Leadership involvement holds key

One of the key challenges in including people with disabilities in the 'mainstream' is changing people's perspective

Sonal Khetarpal        Last Updated: December 6, 2019  | 23:41 IST
Disability inclusion in workforce: Leadership involvement holds key
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Vaibhav Kothari has graduated in engineering, has a masters in entrepreneurship and has also done MBA - all from the top schools in the US. After his first two degrees, he joined the family-owned infrastructure and construction firm Om Metals Infraprojects in 2009 as an executive member. Within one year since he joined, he turned around their Hydro mechanical equipment factory in Kota, making it profitable and adding new product lines. His academic and professional accolades are not enough it seems. He says he feels like a second-class citizen. The reason - he is deaf.

"Even after ten years of being involved in the family business I have to prove myself every day. I still sometimes feel as if I am not fully involved by the team. The problem is I am seen as a deaf person first and not as a person who happens to be deaf with a lot of business knowledge," says Kothari.

Kothari's experience isn't any different. He speaks for the 200 million people with disabilities (PwD) in India.

One of the key challenges in including people with disabilities in the 'mainstream'  is changing people's perspective.

India's first blind solo paraglider and founder of Pune-based not-for-profit Adventures Beyond Barriers Foundation (ABBF) Divyanshu Ganatra says, "The biggest challenge, especially in our country, is not really the disability, it is the attitudinal barriers that we face." He adds due to the shame and stigma one doesn't see many people with disabilities around, at work, in schools or in movie theatres.  "People with disabilities are the largest invisible population in our country," he says.

India alone has 200 million PwDs, which is 2.1 per cent of India's population (as per 2001 Census). Not including people with disabilities costs the country 5-7 per cent of its GDP.

Over the years, several firms have included disability in their inclusion agenda but progress has been slow. And, irrespective of the commitments, hardly one per cent of PwDs are employed by companies in India.

To change the perception, Ganatra's not-for-profit ABBF leverages transformative power of play to get business leaders do an adventure sport or outdoor activity with people with disabilities such as marathons, tandem cycling, scuba diving, paragliding, and mountaineering. "Sports as a medium can bring people together and make strangers friends. The awkwardness around disability disappears and they both have the same objective of either climbing a mountain or finish the marathon," says Ganatra. In the Tata Mumbai Marathon 2020 on January 19, 150 top CEOs have signed up to run alongside people with disabilities not just to endorse the cause of inclusion but to ensure their workspaces are accessible and inclusive. Rekha M. Menon, Chairman and Senior Managing Director at Accenture in India is one of them.

Several companies that work with people with disability try to engage with the firms' boards and CEOs. The reason, Caroline Casey, founder of The Valuable 500, says, "With leaders we get the attention and the intention to include disability in their inclusion agendas and get it operationalised in the business. If business includes, society includes."

For inclusion to be right, it has to be driven by the top. If it becomes the Board agenda only then it have an impact on the overall practices in the firm. Shanti Raghavan, founder of not-for profit EnAble India explains the importance of influencing CEOs. "While managers have understood the value of inclusion, their impact is limited to their teams. If it becomes the focus of CEOs, it influences hiring practices, workplace culture and the barriers to inclusion reduce." EnAble India works with 700 companies across 29 sectors to help them hire people with disabilities and find their right job fit.

Gopal Singaraju, COO, RBS India says their CMO is responsible for driving the agenda and it is a part of his KRA. "When leadership is involved you have budgets and there are people who are accountable to drive the agenda, which makes a big difference." They also have a six-month leadership development programme for people with disabilities and have nominated 25 people for it this year.

Inclusion doesn't happen overnight. It is a journey where one learns and evolves. Singaraju accepts that when they started hiring people with disabilities, it was more out of charity but over the years they have learned that it is a mutually beneficial relation where the overall productivity of the firm improves. He shares the instance of how they made the filing process paperless to enable a lady who couldn't bend to sift through several file cabinets work better. The digitisation eventually helped the entire department, he says.

Researchers have shown the business benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Accenture and Disability:IN in the report "Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage," analysed 140 US companies and found that inclusive firms outperformed their peers. The firms that had best practices on including people with disabilities had on average over the four-year period 28 per cent higher revenue, double the net income and 30 per cent higher economic profit margins than the other companies.

It also makes sense to hire people with disabilities to design products that cater to this large section of society. According to Global Economics of Disability Report, this group globally has a spending power of $8 trillion.

Sadashiv Nayak, CEO, Future Retail says, for inclusion to be meaningful it has to be integrated with the purpose of the firm. He says, "The reason for our existence is to create shopping environment and drive consumption. To do that, we need to bring along many more shoppers, profiles and cohorts in that journey. If we don't serve that 2 per cent of India that has some form of disability, it is an incomplete agenda."

Future Retail started its inclusion journey with the stores, to enable a shopping environment that is accessible. They have 150 Big Bazaar and FBB stores that are accessible and the aim is to take it to 300. These stores have seen 1 lakh first-time PwD shoppers till date. They also have a quiet hour called Quieta every week for people with neural disabilities such as down syndrome, autism for which they dim the lights, switch off the music and staff speaks in murmurs. Currently, 38 stores follow Quieta hour on Tuesday mornings and it has got 15,000 first time shoppers in the last six months.

Future Retail has 250 PwD employees across stores. "Over 50 per cent of our stores have at least one person with disability. There is no target, but the idea is to have one employee with disability per store. It is not a mandate but we have realised it makes sense," says Vineet Saraiwala, Lead, Inclusion, Future Retail.

Inclusion will take time and till then we need more business leaders such as Kothari and Ganatra to lead the change. Kothari seems to be shouldering this responsibility well. He is producing and acting in a Hollywood movie with director Hilari Scarl to help make mainstream the rights of people with disabilities and gain wider acceptance. "It's time we move from 'oh, this guy is deaf' to 'this person needs a different way of communication' when we see a deaf person."

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