It is 9 am. Maanya has reached her office, and she is deciding whether to use the stairs or the lift to reach the first floor. She chooses to use the stairs because, after all, it’s just a floor, isn’t it? Her chair has been replaced today, but that’s not a major issue. She also does not have to worry about waiting in the queue to access the washroom.
The only communication issue that can happen today with her is a lag in Zoom meetings.
Now, imagine all these situations for someone with physical and cognitive disabilities.
In the wise words of Mahatma Gandhi, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” This timeless sentiment encapsulates the essence of a society's responsibility towards its individuals, especially those facing challenges.
In the corporate realm, this responsibility extends beyond the bottom line and shareholder returns; it encompasses the duty to foster inclusivity and equitable opportunities for all, regardless of physical or cognitive abilities.
The need for corporate social responsibility (CSR) has gained considerable traction in recent years. The United Nations, in a 2020 report, highlighted that 44 percent of the indicators in the Asia-Pacific region were not being followed, underscoring the urgency for nations, especially in this region, to address the gaps in inclusivity and accessibility.
India, with its rich cultural diversity, grapples with unique challenges, notably stringent criteria for classifying individuals as "disabled," hindering their access to justice and inclusive opportunities. When companies quote values of “diversity” and “inclusivity,” they often overlook intersectionalities, out of which the most overlooked section is Persons with Disabilities (PwDs).
Challenges Faced by People with Disabilities in India
The challenges faced by PwDs in India span various domains, from the complex certification processes hindering access to healthcare and welfare to the lack of infrastructural provisions in both urban and rural areas. In this respect, the National Statistical Office (NSO) reports a higher prevalence of disabilities in rural regions, exacerbating the disparities in access to education and employment.
Furthermore, the societal mindset contributes to the plight of PwDs, often treating them with sympathy rather than empathy. Insensitivity among peers and educators, coupled with a lack of inclusive education during the COVID-19 pandemic, further marginalises this community. The delay in conducting surveys and formulating policies, as mandated by the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, creates a policy vacuum, hindering the effective implementation of measures meant to address these challenges.
The World Health Organisation also estimates that over 15 percent of the global population experiences disabilities, a figure expected to rise due to factors such as an ageing population. However, businesses have largely sidelined this community, with only 4 percent of companies claiming to prioritise disability in their diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Adopting a Holistic Approach
Addressing these challenges requires a holistic and trans-disciplinary approach, recognising the calibration of societal, institutional, and governmental facets. Transparency in budgeting and planning is crucial, with disability response planning integrated into the budgeting processes of all ministries, ensuring a proactive policy paradigm. Government initiatives in this respect should focus on addressing the needs of the disadvantaged and providing equal opportunities in all developmental spheres.
Further, recognising Indian Sign Language (ISL) and incentivising companies that prioritise physical and technological accessibility for disabled individuals are essential steps. Making ISL interpreters mandatory in official communications involving disabled individuals can bridge communication gaps.
Additionally, infrastructural inclusivity is a priority. The spaces must be designed in a way to also provide for PwDs: inclusive washrooms, accessible pathways, proper seating arrangements, ramp walking, and common spaces.
Lastly, tackling social disability involves dispelling the stigma associated with disabilities. Sensitisation campaigns at various levels, from families to communities, are necessary to foster acceptance. Society must therefore move away from seeing differently-abled people as liabilities or charity cases.
The concept of 'special people' is euphemistically flawed, and the focus should shift towards a “rights-based approach" rather than a matter of goodwill.
The Business Imperative for Disability Inclusion
Globally, over one billion people live with disabilities, representing a significant untapped resource. The benefits of inclusive workplaces are manifold. Focusing on skills rather than stereotypes provides access to a diverse pool of talent.
Diverse experiences lead to varied approaches to problem-solving, fostering innovation. Inclusive workplaces contribute to higher employee loyalty and enthusiasm.
Companies committed to inclusion are viewed favourably by customers, enhancing their reputation. Thus, inclusivity extends beyond benefiting individuals with disabilities; it positively impacts the entire workforce and society.
Ensuring disability inclusion requires a top-down commitment. From removing recruitment barriers to implementing accessibility charters and audits, companies play a pivotal role in creating an inclusive environment. Despite India's burgeoning workforce and its potential, disability inclusion lags behind.
Only a fraction of employable people with disabilities are currently employed, highlighting a glaring underutilisation of talent. The Disabilities Act mandates equal opportunity policies, but the implementation falls short.
Accenture's report titled 'Enabling Change,' emphasises that companies embracing a culture of equality, including support for persons with disabilities, experience faster growth in sales and profits. The report recommends eight factors, including role models, flexible work, and mental health policies, to build inclusive cultures.
Post-COVID-19, companies worldwide are reimagining workspaces and have made Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) their priority. Hence, organisations are now turning over the turnover business and maximising output through inclusive inputs. Disability inclusion is not just a moral imperative; it is a strategic business decision.
Companies that recognise and harness the potential of individuals with disability contribute not only to a more equitable society but also to their own success.
Be it Rani Mukherjee’s character Naina from the movie Hichki, or Shreyas Talpade’s character Iqbal from the movie Iqbal, they both flourished in their professional lives, and the environments surrounding them excelled because of their talent and values of inclusivity.
By fostering inclusivity, businesses can access a vast pool of talent, drive innovation, enhance employee engagement, and, ultimately, contribute to a more prosperous and harmonious world.
(Dr Heera Lal (IAS), Special Secretary, Government of Uttar Pradesh and Shirin Pajnoo is a policy consultant. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)