The world of work can (and must) be disability inclusive
There is not just a moral but a strong business case for ensuring workplaces are inclusive. Companies that are do better business.
Since I was four years old, I have had a physical disability that makes it difficult for me to walk long distances or sit for long periods of time. Growing up, I was lucky that this didn’t stop me achieving my dreams. My mother has always believed in me, and my father has always understood my potential. At school and college, I was encouraged by staff and students alike. I am proud to say I was a top performer academically, graduating from Egerton University in Kenya with a degree in Biomedical Science and Information Technology.
It was only when I entered the world of work that I found attitudes were not so supportive.
When I got my first job at a loan company in Nairobi, for example, I told my employers of my abilities and limitations. But when I got to my workstation, my manager had not been informed and did not want to hear. I then found out that I had not been told about significant elements of the job I was expected to do, such as travel long distances. I was soon discriminated against for not performing tasks I couldn’t do and was told that I was letting the team down.
I suggested solutions but was ignored. When I took my issue to the HR department, they offered no support. Eventually I had to accept it was not working and resign. It was devastating. I felt I had failed. My confidence was shaken.
This experience is not unusual or particularly extreme. Around the world, people with disabilities are around half as likely as others to be active in the labour market. In low-and-middle income countries, as few as 12% of people with disabilities are employed. And the pandemic has made things even worse.
This is not for lack of ability but discrimination and non-inclusive labour systems. Many employers simply don’t believe that people with disabilities can work. Others don’t know how to ensure their operations enable people with disabilities to work.
People with disabilities must have equal opportunities, not just for moral reasons but strong business ones. Making up 15% of the global population, we hold a huge amount of untapped talent and spending power. Excluding people with disabilities from the labour market loses the global economy about $6 trillion per year, according to an analysis of World Bank and International Labour Organisation data.
Despite the rejection I faced early in my career, I did not give up. Instead, I sat down and talked to myself about what I could do. I settled on IT as it seemed like an industry where they look at your skills first. I found an online programme through Inclusive Futures, which provides training to jobseekers with disabilities with support from GIZ’s Employment and Skills for Development in Africa (E4D) programme and UDPK. And I undertook an IT course with the Bridge Academy hosted at the National Industrial Training Authority (NITA). This latter training had specific provisions to ensure it was suitable for students with disabilities. Despite being a pilot project, it ended up with an almost 100% pass rate.
With this support, I got an internship at Safaricom, which has proven to me that workplaces can be inclusive. There are staff trained by Sightsavers to be disability aware and the technology is accessible to people with disabilities. Acknowledging that it can be difficult for me to get on and off busy matatus and expensive to get taxis, the company also supports me to travel to work.
My aspirations are no different to those of people without disabilities. But my options are often more limited. And my self-confidence has been severely affected by other people’s perceptions. I want every employer to look at people with disabilities and who we are, not as our impairment. This will require changing mindsets, which can begin by just showing people that companies that are disability inclusive do better business.
The conversation about inclusion also needs to go beyond employers and to the whole of society. Are all buildings and houses accessible? Is transport, healthcare, and education? If we are not including everyone, then we are not being truly inclusive.