In The Media

Addressing Our Thinking Towards Disability

3 December 2015 is recognised by the United Nations as International Day for Persons with Disabilities. The theme for 2015, as laid out by the United Nations, is a simple yet powerful message: Inclusion Matters!

Justene Smith, Disability Expert at Progression, shares her insights about what we need to consider when addressing our attitudes towards disability, ensuring an inclusive and barrier-free workplace in order to promote access and empowerment for people of all abilities.

People with disabilities encounter many different forms of barriers in the workplace.  Not only are these barriers presented by the physical environment, but they may also include negative beliefs and attitudes around people with disabilities that could lead to discriminatory behaviour towards an individual. It is often the case that these attitudinal barriers pose the greatest challenge for the integration of people with disabilities in the workplace. Many of these attitudinal barriers are a result of underlying prejudice, stereotypes or lack of information and understanding around disability.

Understanding our prejudice

Prejudice and stereotypes form part of our everyday engagement with one another. Stereotypes are often not based on an individual’s belief system, but are created through social influence. Growing up, our family, friends and communities may have influenced how we learn to perceive the world around us, often with a negative or positive association. When we are exposed to a particular stereotype enough times, we begin to internalise it, especially if we believe that a stereotype we were exposed to, has been validated in our personal experience. For example, we may hear the stereotype that “All taxi drivers are reckless”, so when a taxi driver cuts us off in the traffic we say to ourselves “Yes! All taxi drivers ARE reckless”, and so the stereotype becomes ingrained in our belief system, thus discrediting and forming a discriminatory opinion of any taxi drivers that may in fact be conscientious drivers on the road. 

As individuals, we all hold prejudice or stereotypes of some form. However, what we need to be aware of is how we manage these so that they don’t become discriminatory behaviour. For example, we may have been conditioned to feel sorry for a person with a disability or led to think we should help people with disabilities because they are at a disadvantage. Our response, when we come across a person with a disability in the workplace for instance, may be to remove certain tasks from their job because we assume that it will be too difficult or challenging for that person. Although the intention may be coming from a ‘good place’, this type of response is in fact discrimination.

Preventing discriminatory behaviour

Discrimination often leads to the unjust or prejudicial treatment of an individual. Similar to our stereotypes, discrimination will generally have a positive or negative association. Assumptions are often made around people with disabilities that prevent them from participating in the workplace. The assumption might be that our organization can’t employ people with disabilities because the work would not be suitable or that the work would only be suitable for certain types of disabilities because we have a perceived notion of what that individual’s limitations are. These assumptions can lead to negative discriminatory behaviour in our recruitment or screening processes. We therefore always advise our clients to focus on the skills of the individual, and not on the disability. It’s not about how the job is done because ultimately it’s the person, not the disability, that gets the work done.

We need to remember that disability forms part of our everyday human experience, just as we encounter people of different races, cultures, ages and genders on a day-to-day basis. Our feelings and, more importantly, our behaviour around these human experiences should be neutral, not positive or negative, and should be in line with Best Practice in terms of people management.

A sustainable solution

A long-term solution to inclusion in our workplaces requires thoughtful and sensitive education around disability. This can assist in breaking the prejudice and stigma often associated with disability. Ultimately, in order to create a truly inclusive environment in which all South Africans can grow and participate, disability needs to be approached with a ‘business as usual attitude’ and the person and their skills must be considered first, before their condition.

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