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Able and willing

Published on Friday, 24 Jan 2014
Fern Ngai
Ajmal Samuel

Inadequate or ill-conceived policies on the hiring of persons with disability mean many Hong Kong firms are missing out on top talent

Ajmal Samuel and Jack Liu have different disabilities and were jobseekers in different eras – one in the early ’90s and the other just recently. But one experience they share is the difficulty they faced trying to find employment in Hong Kong as people with disabilities.

“I graduated in May and only got my first job offer in April the following year – it took one year,” says Liu, a master’s degree graduate from the University of Hong Kong.

Liu has congenital cataracts, a condition that has left him with less than 30 per cent of vision in his eyes.

The same wall of rejection greeted Samuel, a former army captain who was left wheelchair-bound following an accident while on duty in the mid-1980s that shattered his spine during the Kashmir conflict.

These experiences are common in Hong Kong where, according to the World Report on Disability released in 2011, the employment rate for people with disabilities is about 12 per cent. This is very low compared with figures of 42 per cent in Japan and 84 per cent in China. Governments in these countries require businesses to comply with a quota system for workers with disabilities. Hong Kong has no such affirmative arrangement.

 “We’re definitely behind the curve and there’s a lot more that can be done,” says Fern Ngai, CEO of Community Business, a membership non-profit organisation promoting corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Ngai says there are various reasons for the low employment rate among the city’s disabled community. These include companies fearing the unknown, a misunderstanding of the mechanics of working with disabled people, and an assumption that it is going to be costly or difficult to make adjustments in the workplace for such staff.

In fact, according to Community Business research, the worldwide average cost of supporting anyone with a disability in the workplace is less than US$500 a year, and most arrangements cost nothing.

Andy Li, regional head of talent acquisition for North East Asia at Standard Chartered Bank, cites an example. “One of the heads of our global teams is partially deaf in one ear, but we’ve found that by simply adjusting the seating arrangements in the office, he’s able to contribute as fully as any of his able-bodied peers,” he says.

In Liu’s case, his boss has helped him to adjust the lighting in his office and bought software that enlarges contents on his computer screen for easy reading.

“It’s no different from hiring talent. Whether [a worker] has a disability or not, they are going to have expectations and some companies will do a lot to try and bring in talent,” Ngai says. “If you look at people with disability and focus on what they are able to do rather than what they are not able to do, you would probably feel inclined to make those accommodations.”

In a new report titled “Tapping Into a Pool of Disabled Talent” (see graphic) involving over 50 university graduates with disabilities, Community Business has established a strong business case for companies to make these accommodations and to strive towards inclusive employment.

For starters, the report reveals a new talent pool. “All companies want to hire, acquire, develop and retain the best, most talented employees, so this opens up a talent pool that they may never have thought of before,” Ngai says.

Many people with disabilities are highly qualified. Samuel, for instance, has years of work experience, but talent like him are often overlooked and relegated to entry-level jobs.

A 2010 Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission survey points to a majority view that simple repetitive work suits people with disabilities, and that such workers have no place in a highly competitive society.

However, according to the Community Business research, more than 70 per cent of university graduates with a disability are considering a career in the corporate sector. These students tend to be highly ambitious and determined, with all of them finishing their university degrees.

“One of the key challenges is overcoming the mindset that people with disability are only suitable for certain types of role,” Li says. “This causes managers to focus only on what they cannot do. Instead, we should be focusing on what they can do.”

Li says that Standard Chartered’s employees with disabilities were “on a par with, or in some cases, outperforming, their able-bodied peers in several key productivity and efficiency measures.”

The Community Business report also shows that, from a branding and reputation perspective, a company that values diversity and inclusion is often seen as a preferred employer.

“A lot of CSR is embedded into the way you do business,” Ngai says. “CSR is about achieving commercial success while respecting ethical values, people, communities and the environment. It’s not separate from your day-to-day work.”

According to Ngai, research shows that if a company is seen to be an inclusive employer, “it’s going to have a knock-on effect on the rest of your staff in terms of pride, engagement and, hence, higher productivity.”

Ngai urges companies to take a strategic and holistic approach in developing a vision and business goal to include disability employment, even just in the form of internship programmes for students with disabilities. “Develop some kind of framework that is applicable to the whole organisation where all your departments and seniors do something around it,” she says. “It’s not going to happen unless it comes from the top.”

Ngai also points out that, according to the World Health Organisation, around 25 per cent of the global population is directly or indirectly affected by disability impairment.

“If you think about it, a quarter of the world’s population is affected, so whether or not it is affecting your employees, it is definitely affecting your customer base,” she says.

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