Differently-abled, not defective: Is legislation the only answer to recognise their needs? - Firstpost
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Differently-abled, not defective: Is legislation the only answer to recognise their needs?


Of late, conversations on gender diversity have found their much deserved place in Indian corporate boardrooms. With the government mandating a woman director on company boards, organisations have made a beeline for capable women leaders who can add strategic value to an institution’s growth.

Barring a handful of organisations that have embraced diversity in its true spirit, the conversations on diversity in India are largely based on gender and focused on getting more women in the workforce. Pause for a second. Are we not being myopic? Why limit diversity to gender?

How many of us can claim to have a differently-abled colleague? File photo

How many of us can claim to have a differently-abled colleague? File photo

How many of us work in organisations where we have a colleague who is visually challenged or physically differently-abled on the autism spectrum or is dyslexic? Perhaps with the exception of a few IT companies and diversity champions such as Wipro and TCS which have 0.3 percent and 0.2 percent of their employee workforce with the differently-abled respectively, most organisations have a long way to go. What could be the reasons?

The underlying reason is our inability to understand and appreciate those who are different from us.

Diversely coded

Yet, a few organisations, both large and small, have embedded diversity in their genetic coding. These organisations have hired those who are often rejected as they do not fit the definition of ‘normal’.

Mirakle Couriers, a for-profit social enterprise founded by Dhruv Lakra, a Saïd School-Oxford alumnus has 50 hearing challenged employees. The firm, with an impressive roster of clients such as Amazon, IDFC, Writer Corporation and Aditya Birla Group, competes with the big guns of the courier industry on efficiency and cost — not sympathy.

In an industry where appearance, impression and efficiency is table stakes, Lemon Tree Hotels and Costa Coffee have proven beyond doubt that workplace diversity can thrive in non-technology companies and in customer-facing roles too.

How then can we push the envelope and have a truly diverse workforce?

It begins by changing our mindset. It is important for us to respect diversity. We need to respect someone not only because he is smart or talented, but also if that person is different. We need to respect difference and move beyond traditional thinking. Organisations can do this by creating an environment of a shared language and values so that diverse people can communicate and exchange ideas with each other.

Organisations with diverse workforces rank high among job seekers as it is evident that these organizations do not practice employment discrimination. When an organisation has employees from a truly inclusive and diverse workforce, it enhances creativity, innovation and approach to problem-solving. No longer will the organisation be represented by a homogeneous group, but by people who will think different and have varied life experiences.

Globally, across industries, the most creative organisations are those that have moved beyond philanthropic endeavour or desirous of being seen as ‘doing good’ by hiring diverse folks. These organisations foster a culture of diversity of beliefs, experiences and don’t work to ‘normalise’ everyone. This helps in building the brand reputation of the employer as well as market competitiveness.

SAP Labs is committed to having 1 percent of their workforce with employees who are autistic. Indigo Airlines hired a paraplegic employee for a customer facing role and Mphasis has supported the Office of Disability Services at IIM Bangalore as a single point of contact for student with special needs.

Lacking in policy

Unfortunately, in India, the apathy towards the differently-abled starts right from school. Despite the Right To Education Act, most schools- government or private, find some or the other excuse to keep the differently-abled away. Either it is the lack of infrastructure or teachers who do not have the right training to deal with the differently-abled. The result is a huge population of children growing up as adults just like you and me, eventually taking up senior management roles with absolutely no clue of how to be comfortable around the differently-abled. The data on diversity in organisations is proof of this sad reality.

The other challenge is the definition of the word ‘disability’. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014 is attempting to widen the scope of this definition and address many challenges that could be a harbinger of hope for those who are different. However, the Bill still continues to be in the review stage.

It’s not enough to have good intent. What is needed is action. Will it once again take another legislation for diversity and inclusion? I strongly believe that is the only way to shake up the system.

The Accessible India campaign launched by the BJP Government with an audacious goal of making 50 percent of all government buildings in the national capital region and in state capitals fully accessible with ramps, rails, wheelchair access for the disabled by July 2018 is a good beginning.

Private enterprises should also come forward and rejig existing infrastructure for the differently-abled. Disability advocates believe six months are more than adequate to develop a robust plan-to-execution template.

In order to usher a cultural change, there is a need to start thinking and acting at the grassroots level – sensitize children, teachers and parents; mandate every school to reserve seats for children who are different, because if it were not for Stephen Hawking’s extraordinary achievement and talent, chances are we would have seen disability first and not the talent. Did you know that Italy is the only European country that passed a law way back in 1971 which granted children the right to be educated in common schools and over the years abolished special schools thereby enrolling almost all disabled and differently-abled pupils (over 99 percent) in mainstream schools?

With more than 27 million differently-abled in India, it’s high time the government pushes the pedal of reforms for this community of minorities that is immensely talented but lives with a label each day of their life.

The author works for RPG Enterprises. He is a student of trends and initiatives on diversity and inclusion in schools and organisations.

First Published On : Aug 27, 2016 09:39 IST

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