More often than not, persons with disabilities experience marginalisation, discrimination and alienation on a day to day basis. Economic freedom although not the only means, is one of the important drivers for the inclusion of persons with disabilities and changing the status quo, in terms of their participation in society, making their own choices and having a dignified life1. The Rights of Persons with Disability (RPwD) Act 20162 has in this regard made a 4% reservation in all governmental departments for persons with disabilities. However, it is seen that the total labour force participation rate of persons with disabilities at 21.9 per %, in urban India is almost only one-third of the participation rate of persons without disabilities. Meanwhile, the workers’ population ratio of persons with disabilities (20.40%) is also two time lesser than that of persons without disabilities (43.9%)3. In India, the top firms have a share of less than 0.5% representation of persons with disabilities4. Some of the primary reasons cited for the stated disparities, even with the required qualifications and education, are said to be because of the stigmas in hiring persons with disabilities, issues of inaccessible workspace, lack of sensitisation, and inadequacies of reasonable accommodation in workspace. Experience of discrepancies and lack of support mechanisms have left them with fewer job options, often restricting their socio-economic growth.
The onset of the pandemic has changed the way the world functions overnight. Lockdowns, social distancing, work from home are now words that people are well acquainted with. With the exception of essential workers and daily wagers, the rest of the working population have been pushed to work from home. The ‘home space’ has been converted to working space, and employers have been making arrangements to accommodate remote working for their employees by the provision of desktops and software to enable a better working experience. For persons with disabilities who have been demanding the arrangement of working from home for years, the "new normal" has brought a sense of hope.
While work from home might ideally be a more convenient arrangement for persons with disabilities, it is also to a large extent a product of inaccessible environments (commute to work, and workspace). "There wouldn't have been a demand for or need to work from home if the built environment had been accessible for us", states Afsal, a research scholar with visual impairment. Apprehensions were expressed that the arrangement of work from home might shift the pressure of employers making the workplace more accessible to individuals making their workplace (at home) accessible. Additionally, work from home also limits interactions with colleagues which otherwise often serves as a support system for employees with disabilities. The constant confinement at home for work purposes also reduces the mobility rate of persons with disabilities, especially people with locomotor disabilities who require some amount of physical activities and exercises to remain fit and help reduce anxieties. This also decreases the aspect of social inclusion and visibility of persons with disabilities in public places which otherwise are used to promote inclusion, sensitise, make aware and destigmatized issues related to disability.
Although it might be true for people with certain or severe disabilities who might need the arrangement of work from home, it does not necessarily apply to all people with disabilities. However, presumptions are often made that all persons with disabilities would not be willing to travel and would prefer work from home arrangements without asking for their preferences. An article published by the Harvard Business Review, states that employees also refuse to disclose their disability for the fear that they will be treated differently or that they would be deemed incompetent5. This has led to PwDs being left out from being fully absorbed as an employee and having the constant pressure to prove that they can do tasks as efficiently as any other employees. "I should have the opportunity to prove myself that I can do it," says Mahavir Kumar an alumnus from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, as he shared about how he struggled to carve out a space in his workplace as a valuable employee. Therefore, it is when organisations take an active role in ensuring a safe space that employees with disabilities can be more comfortable with talking about their disability. Only through the willingness and efforts of organisations to understand and accommodate the needs of PwDs can a course of action be devised for the inclusion of PwDs in workplaces.
For all the aforementioned reasons and much more, making reasonable accommodations becomes a pressing priority. The Supreme Court of India in the case of Vikash Kumar vs Union Public Service Commission stated, "The principle of reasonable accommodation captures the positive obligation of the State and private parties to provide additional support to persons with disabilities to facilitate their full and effective participation in society"6. In this regard, the RPwD, 2016 also mandates that a liaison officer be appointed to foresee all issues related to persons with disabilities, such as hiring of PwDs, ensuring that they are not discriminated, and making provision of facilities and services that will reduce barriers and increase their productivity7. Companies and organisations should be made to strictly follow these mandates to ensure inclusion of persons with disabilities. It is time that we look at barrier free built environments not only at the governmental level but also at the organisational level.
At an organisational level, sensitisation programmes should be conducted with employees on basic etiquette towards persons with disabilities; employees should be trained on how they can assist their fellow employee with disabilities, and to debunk assumptions and biases against disability. Further, sign language training should also be offered to provide support and promote a workforce that is inclusive and empathetic towards persons with disabilities. More importantly, the option of ‘preference’ to work from home or work from the office must be provided for and should be decided by employees with disabilities. HR policies should have a section that specifically discusses reasonable accommodations for their employees' disabilities; criteria should be present to accommodate the diverse needs of persons with disabilities. Formalization and structuralisation of how employees can be inclusively accommodated in the organisation is one very important aspect that all employers need to consider and work on. The built work-infrastructure should also be mandatorily retrofitted (in the case of old buildings), and universally designed infrastructures need to be implemented in all new buildings. Provision of accessible washrooms, ramps along with lifts that are wheelchair friendly, relocating coffee machines, water filters at wheelchair accessible heights, and assistive technologies to aid employees with disabilities are a few of the changes that employees can begin to implement for the promotion of an enabling, barrier-free workspace for employees with disabilities. Above all, equal employment opportunities must be provided irrespective of their disabilities, gender or identity.
Bio of the Author:
Veronica Quikiumaliu Wijunamai, currently works with the Building, Accessible, Safe and Inclusive, Indian Cities (BASIIC) programme of NIUA. To read more about BASIIC programme click here: https://www.dev.niua.org/projectdetails?pid=26
- 1 Singh, Pooja. "Persons with Disabilities and Economic Inequalities in India." Indian Anthropologist 44, no. 2 (2014): 65–80. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43899390.
- 2 https://legislative.gov.in/sites/default/files/A2016-49_1.pdf
- 3 https://dev.niua.org/intranet/sites/default/files/1366.pdf
- 4 https://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/persons-with-disabilities-form-less-than-0-5-of-staff-in-india-s-top-firms-119111200206_1.html
- 5 https://hbr.org/2021/06/make-it-safe-for-employees-to-disclose-their-disabilities
- 6 https://www.canefoundation.org/the-right-to-reasonable-accommodations-of-persons-with-disabilities/
- 7 http://www.upfcindia.com/documents/rpwd_101017.pdf