Remove Barriers in Employment for Disabled People

Fadila Lagadien challenges the existing perception that disabled people cannot engage in gainful or meaningful employment as they are believed to be sick, and sick people belong in hospital. Internet publication URL:

by Ms. Fadila Lagadien
First published in the IDT magazine - Leading Edge, 1996

It is the accepted belief that as disabled people we cannot engage in gainful or meaningful employment as we are believed to be sick. Sick people belong in hospital! For this reason, disabled people are placed in sheltered employment to KEEP THEM BUSY. I would like to challenge the existing perception by providing an alternative viewpoint.

In my opinion the major reason for the non-participation of disabled people in society, particularly in the workplace, is that we live in a barrier-infested society!

The prime culprit among barriers is people's negative ATTITUDE. If we lived in Utopia, everyone would have a non-stereotype attitude, but we don't. This reflects in the legal practices of our society. For example, disabled people are not allowed to adopt children; a disabled woman receiving a disability grant will lose it should she get married, to name but a few. Many artificial barriers are also placed in our way. This is evident in the way in which disabled people have difficulty in accessing bank loans and buying insurance - in the same way as non-disabled people - as we are seen as liabilities.

If non-disabled people had a positive attitude towards us, the other barriers would be non-existent. These barriers manifest themselves in the inaccessibility of the built environment that denies disabled people freedom of movement. The denial of access to equal opportunity in employment, education, sports and recreation as well as culture and religion are barriers that are more difficult to correct than the built environment. The denial of these opportunities is complicated through the lack of appropriate resources, which is the result of uninformed development planning. This in turn, is due to the denial of self-representation in matters concerning us. Poor planning is also a result of non-communication - verbal and non-verbal, as well as written. This denial is evident in the way in which no effort is made by development agents to communicate with disabled people who cannot access traditional forms of communication.

All the barriers that I have mentioned deny disabled people access to employment. Contrary to the general belief that disability is the individual's problem, it is the view of the disability rights movement that it affects the whole society. Society has therefore an obligation to remove barriers and become an agent of change.

I believe that these barriers exist in the first place due to a lack of awareness - it therefore follows that a precondition to the removal of barriers in society is AWARENESS raising. By observing the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities (this is not a legally binding document but it does imply a strong moral obligation by member countries), greater emphasis must be placed on awareness raising programmes as it is Rule One of said document.

For the first time in the history of South Africa we have a constitution that outlaws discrimination on the basis of disability, amongst others. Our constitution will be rather useless if we don't have measures to protect our constitutional rights. To this end South Africa is in the process of developing policies on various issues, and one such issue is that of equitable employment. The draft discussion document of the Department of Labour states that affirmative action includes disability. It proposes that within ten years, 2 percent of the public sector workforce must comprise disabled persons. It describes disability as a persistent physical, mental, psychiatric, sensory or learning impairment and it includes people socially disabled through Aids.

Given this definition, what are the implications to both the employer and the employee? Will the Minister of Labour spend money on awareness raising programmes to address the anxieties and prejudices of both employers and fellow employees? Has the Department of Labour done anything to address the way in which the industry will accommodate disabled employees?

To neglect addressing any of the above while forging ahead with the employment of disabled people is to set us up to fail! And, to believe that sheltered employment has indeed made the necessary accommodations for disabled people, is to believe that a pig can fly!

Placing quotas (numeric targets) on employers will not necessarily realize equitable employment for disabled people. To achieve equity, certain pre-conditions are necessary for a quota to the benefit of those being affirmed. There has to be a commitment to the success of affirmative action from top management. Recruitment and Selection are crucial and complicated areas of affirmative action as they deal with matching the person with the job and not vice-versa.

For example, when considering a deaf person for a position, interpreter services must form part of the equation right from the onset. Deaf persons must not only be considered for jobs that require little or no verbal communication. Interpreter services can be drawn from a pool as opposed to one deaf employee and one interpreter. Inexpensive technology such as Teledem in place of ordinary telephones will make external communication accessible to the employee. To signal fire alarms in public places, can be indicated by using visual signals.

For a blind person an accessible work environment might mean adding a voice synthesizer to the computer, keyboard interface and a Braille printer. For a partially sighted person it might mean swapping a normal sized screen for a large screen computer with enlarged text and high definition colours.

For a wheelchair user obvious features such as ramps and lifts in place of steps are required. In addition, wide enough spaces to aid smooth mobility and accessible toilet space with grab rails as prescribed in the building regulations of 1986, are needed. This however, is not all - a quadriplegic (loss of movement and/or sensation in all four limbs) can be accommodated by technological interfaces such as a head pointed mouse, voice synthesizer or software that allows for short cuts when more than one key has to be held down simultaneously.

Added to the technological assistance, all the types of disabilities mentioned also make use of human assistance. Human assistance include drivers, interpreters or personal assistants (someone who assists in the performance of personal functions such as bathing, dressing, toileting, transferring, eating, etc.).

The enabling measures listed here barely scratch the surface of what is available and possible to integrate disabled people into the open labour market. I would caution that provision of these accommodations not be focused on the expense (it is often a one off capital expense) but on human rights, dignity and justice.

Employee privileges and benefits should be accessible to all. Affirmative Action (AA) has to be seen to advance equality in the enjoyment of human rights. AA is therefore a necessity that will only result from the adoption of a holistic approach and as an integral part of the Reconstruction and Development Programme's objectives. Thus, the time has come for South Africa to review its approach towards disabled people and take a step towards a more specific integrated strategy.