18 Jul. 2012 | Comments (0)

Let us suppose your business has a policy to employ people with disabilities. Then you discover that a newly hired wheelchair-using employee is unable to get to her first-floor office because she’s not allowed to use the elevator for health and safety reasons - or because the need for better wheel chair access has never occurred to the facilities manager. How effective is your policy now?

UK-based disability campaigner, Susan Scott-Parker, recently spoke at a London-based gathering which I attended. According to Scott-Parker, something like this happened at a major global business not long ago. This story illustrates why disability cannot be solely an HR concern, but must involve the whole business – from IT to real estate planning to sales and marketing – if these policies are to be worth the computers they are composed on.

Stressing the importance of this point, Scott-Parker has unveiled a new name for her organization, which has been known, since its inception in 1991, as the Employers’ Forum on Disability. Starting this September, her organization will now be called the Business Disability Forum, and its increasingly global remit will be to build “disability-smart organizations.”

“We’ve spent virtually every day since we were set up saying: No, this isn’t just about HR, this isn’t just on the employment front,” she told an audience of prominent employers and disability campaigners in the ancient splendor of the House of Lords.

In fact, these days, progressive businesses are not only working to recruit and engage employees with disabilities, but also to serve customers with disabilities. Beyond being the right thing to do, these new policies make better business sense.

Another speaker, Jaspal Bindra, Group Executive Director and CEO Asia at Standard Chartered Bank, explained how his bank, in many of its 70 markets, employed a large tele-salesforce with visual impairments. The bank also possesses a series of ATMs that “talk” for customers with visual difficulties. As Bindra describes, with these ATMs “you don’t need to see what you are doing. You can hear a transaction, as it pronounces, [and] the screen goes blank as soon as you put on your headphones, so somebody can’t see it over your shoulder.”

Bindra also pointed to the challenges of implementing global policies on disability, given different cultural attitudes around the world. While many countries have laws and regulations on hiring people with disabilities, there can be big obstacles to these policies in Standard Chartered’s markets, located mainly in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Bindra added: “I know first-hand of people, when they talk about their children, they forget to mention those that are obviously disabled.” 

As more mature people stay on in the workforce, beyond traditional retirement age, the onus will grow on companies, located in both the East and West, to become smarter about disability. They will need to understand how to make appropriate workplace adjustments and shape roles that are fulfilling and rewarding, without being too physically demanding.

The impact that global companies could make on disability in all its forms is enormous, and an organization like the newly renamed Business Disability Forum provides a means to achieve this. Bindra noted: “As multinationals, we impact several millions of lives, and I think if we can dial up the agenda on disability and make it a focus as a reality of the future, that will make it all happen.”

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  • About the Author: Alison Maitland

    Alison Maitland

    Alison Maitland is a Senior Fellow, Human Capital at The Conference Board. In this role, Alison supports the Human Capital Practice which includes The Conference Board Human Capital Exchange™, r…

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