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Willing and able: Hirers can reap benefits by opening up to workers with disabilities

Published on Saturday, 03 Sep 2016

Skills shortages and a drive for social justice are causing a change in perception of how hirers view the capabilities of employees with disabilities, according to two experts on the subject.

Sania Yau Sau-wai, CEO of the New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, says that recruiting workers with disabilities benefits companies in many ways.

“It enhances a company’s talent management strategy as it demonstrates that the organisation values diversity and creativity, and has the capability to attract and retain the best pool of talent,” she says. “Many employees with disabilities add new skills to a team. Having a more diverse workforce that includes more employees with disabilities can boost employee productivity and organisational performance.”

She adds that employees with disabilities are used to challenging conditions. “They are not only as reliable and hardworking as the able-bodied employees, but they also have enormous experience in problem-solving and developing resilience against adversity through their recovery journey.”

Fern Ngai, CEO of Community Business, believes that misconceptions need to be tackled before greater numbers of capable people with disabilities can be integrated into the workforce.

“It’s difficult to generalise about types of disabilities, but usually when people or companies have had little exposure to people with disabilities, they tend to focus on their disability or medical label, rather than on the individual and his or her abilities,” Ngai says. “They are biased because they are more concerned about what a person with disabilities cannot do, rather than what they can.”

Stigma among family members and people with disabilities themselves is also an issue, Yau says, and can cause some people with disabilities to have low expectations about their chances of being employed. “Due to fear of failure and rejection, some won’t attempt to finish work training or employment. Social isolation of people with disabilities further restricts their access to social networks, especially family members and friends.”

Yau says that Hong Kong’s transition from primary and manufacturing industries towards tertiary service industries has had a considerable impact on people with disabilities. “In tertiary services industries, skills and knowledge are the foci,” she says. “The reduction in manual, routine and repetitive work has a disparate impact on disabled workers whose skills or cognitive capacities are limited to elementary jobs.”

The city’s culture of long working hours also causes problems; long hours often result in stress, Yau says, particularly for workers with mental illnesses “who normally have medication side effects, such as fatigue and lack of concentration”.

The government’s 2015 report on disabilities and chronic diseases stated that 558,000 people aged 15 and over in Hong Kong had some form of non-intellectual disability, though Ngai believes the real figures to be much higher due to a reluctance for people to declare their disabilities.

The report also estimates that there are 71,000 to 101,000 people with intellectual disabilities, though admits that this is only a “crude statistical assessment” due to indications of under-estimation derived from the report findings.

Of those 558,000 people, 81,000 were classed “economically active” – those employed or actively seeking employment. According to Ngai, 76,200 were employed, creating an unemployment rate of around 6 per cent – nearly double the city’s overall rate. Of those employed, Ngai says, 34 per cent are in elementary occupations – for example cleaners, messengers and other basic blue-collar jobs – compared to 20.1 per cent of the overall employed population.

Ngai says Community Business recommends that companies take a strategic approach to hiring workers with disabilities by establishing the business case and developing action plans across all departments. To make necessary cultural and behavioural changes, she suggests organisations provide disability awareness training to staff and bring senior executives and employees into contact with people with disabilities.

To realise the potential of employees with disabilities, she advises that organisations conduct an accessibility audit and make reasonable adjustments, and also ensure that equal opportunities and non-discrimination policies cover employees with disabilities.

Quality and long term employment relationships begin with a good recruitment process, Yau says. “Having preparatory or orientation workshops in understanding the characteristics of disabilities, ways to work and communicate with them, especially with persons with mental illness, would serve as a foundation for recruitment.”

When orienting new hires, Yau says, it’s helpful to collaborate with NGOs as some operate supported employment programmes or on-the-job training programmes for people with disabilities. Vocational training and support programmes enrich knowledge and skills, together with ongoing follow ups to the employer are provided to the service groups.”

Ngai believes developments in technology are only going to help the cause. “Assistive technology can help people with disabilities obtain, keep, and advance in employment, and this includes devices that increase function, independence, participation and productivity for people with disabilities. Examples include alternative keyboards for use with one hand and devices for hands-free control.”

Employers looking to tap into this talent pool should see things from a jobseeker’s perspective. “Apart from the provision of an employment benefits package, most people with disabilities look for corporates who demonstrate a holistic or caring culture and support employees with disabilities by offering equal opportunities and a harmonious and supportive working environment,” Yau says. “In return, such workers will serve corporates with dedication, loyalties and commitment.”

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Willing and able.

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