One in seven persons in the world has a disability, according to the latest statistics. Yet people with disabilities are still far less likely to have a good job – or any job at all – than people without disabilities. Providing reasonable workplace adjustments can often make the difference. More and more employers are discovering just how simple and cost-effective these adjustments can be.
Going out on the streets for the first time using a mobility scooter was surprisingly thrilling. I didn’t know how to use it, how long the battery would last, and since I’d just moved to Geneva I didn’t know where I was going or how to get on and off the buses I needed to take.
Far from being “confined” to a wheelchair, this was an exciting/terrifying liberation and I recommend it to anyone to see what it’s like. I can walk, but I do so slowly, and don’t have so much stamina. The scooter was perfect for Geneva, which has curb-cuts and accessible buses.
I could easily commute to work and get around the office, too. I got the sense that people looked at me a bit differently because I was on the scooter, but mostly this was quite positive: people could see I was having a great time tearing down the sidewalk.
I hadn’t known it would be like this. Before arriving in Geneva, my boss had talked to me about what type of adjustments I would need at work. He suggested the scooter, I thought about it, looked at a few models after arriving, had the seat raised. My employer, the International Labour Organization, paid for it out of a fund to make reasonable accommodations for staff with disabilities.
Reasonable accommodation, or reasonable adjustments, is a technical term used in the UN Convention on Disability. “Reasonable” means that the adjustments aren’t excessively expensive or disproportionate to the needs in question. One thing that made me more comfortable about accepting the scooter was that it wasn’t just for me – after I’d finished using it, other staff and visitors will be able to when they need to.
People with disabilities face systematic exclusion from work all around the world. And this means that everyone loses out: disabled people themselves, the organisations that they could have contributed to, their families and communities.
My scooter is an ideal example of this type of adjustment. When my boss asked me if I needed an adjustment, it was clear that it wouldn’t be held against me or disqualify me from the job. There was a dedicated fund for these expenses and we discussed and agreed on the solution together. The small investment meant that I could focus on my work, and it made both my colleagues and me feel good to be working for an organisation that treats its staff this way.
There are many other types of workplace adjustments as diverse as people and the jobs that they’re in. It might be something for physical accessibility, it might be different working hours, it might be the provision of sign language interpreting. It often involves interactions with other colleagues. I was especially pleased my colleagues liked my scooter and were enjoying riding on it themselves, not stigmatizing it as something weird.
Unfortunately my experience isn’t universal. People with disabilities face systematic exclusion from work all around the world. And this means that everyone loses out: disabled people themselves, the organisations that they could have contributed to, their families and communities.
Some companies find it “obvious” that some people work differently and be able to work better with some adjustment. Other companies don’t see it so easily, and often miss out on opportunities to find talent or help their employees to be more productive. A study on workplace adjustments for persons with disabilities in the United States found that the majority were not expensive. What we’re suggesting isn’t a hard thing to do.
Making adjustments for employees is that smart thing to do: it leads to a more productive and committed workforce. This is especially the case for employees with disabilities and organizations that are “disability smart”.
Employing persons with disabilities generates a more diverse and committed workforce. Increasing accessibility and making adjustments to workflow is beneficial to everyone. Staff will be happier and work better together. Not bad for the price of looking out for employees’ needs and being responsive to them.
The International Labour Organization (@ilo) works with partners across the world to secure equal rights for persons with disabilities across the world. Peter Fremlin (@desibility) is an independent consultant working with the ILO.