As we move to a more diverse and inclusive world, it is important for employers to actively change both their mindset and practices to empower persons with disabilities, shares Dipak Natali, Regional President and MD, Special Olympics Asia Pacific.

In 1992, the United Nations proclaimed 3 December as the annual observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD). The observance of the Day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues, and mobilise support for the dignity, rights and wellbeing of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.

According to the United Nations, more than 1bn people, or approximately 15% of the world's population, live with some form of disability today, of which 80% live in developing countries.

The international organisation elaborates that a disability is a condition or function judged to be significantly impaired relative to the usual standard of an individual in their group. The term is often used to refer to individual functioning, including physical impairment, sensory impairment, cognitive impairment, intellectual impairment, mental illness, and various types of chronic disease.

As “the world’s largest minority” described by the United Nations, it is not uncommon for persons with disabilities, especially those with intellectual disabilities (PWIDs), to face many obstacles in their everyday lives as well as in the workplace, such as discrimination.

As we are approaching to be a more diverse and inclusive world, it is important for employers to actively make a change in both their mindset and practices, to empower persons with disabilities with more opportunities and unlock their potential.

During this year’s IDPD, Dipak Natali, Regional President and Managing Director, Special Olympics Asia Pacific (SOAP), shared exclusively with HRO’s Tracy Chan the importance, misconceptions, and best practices to drive disability-inclusive hiring, along the way to create a more inclusive and diverse workplace.

Q: Why is it important to include persons with disabilities in the hiring process?

I think it is important to recognise the value of diversity, not as a tick-in-the-box, but as an essential way that businesses can adopt to become more resilient and adaptable by bringing together teams with different backgrounds and perspectives. These wider perspectives, when channelled correctly, can inform business decisions better and improve the likelihood of success.

In my view, this can only improve the employee recruitment process and enable a more effective selection of a good candidate. Engaging people with intellectual disabilities (PWIDs) can extend beyond the recruitment and interview process to demonstrate organisational values and a genuine commitment to diversity, further enhancing the wider hiring ‘culture’ within an organisation.

Take Florence Hui, a full-time staff at Uniqlo Singapore and a Special Olympics athlete, as an example. Through her dedication and resilience, she graduated from the APSN Delta Senior School with a Work Skills Qualification (WSQ) certification in retail operations. A valedictorian of her batch and an esteemed member of The Purple Symphony (a local all-inclusive orchestra), she continues to remain a passionate and active Athlete Leader with Special Olympics, advocating for greater inclusivity which she demonstrates in her work and through the recruitment campaigns that we have seen Uniqlo undertake.

All in all, PWIDs can contribute meaningfully to hiring processes within any organisation but the unfortunate reality is that very few will be considered for jobs; only a very small minority of our 2.1mn athletes are employed. Work opportunities are often few and far between as PWIDs remain far removed from the workplace and are labeled as unreliable or incapable.

It is important that people and businesses look beyond that and recognise that with the right training and investment, a PWID can offer great skills and commitment just like anyone else.

Only when our society, governments, and businesses start recognising and committing to hiring, training, and assimilating PWIDs into the workforce, will we start to see real and impactful progress.

At SOAP, our core mission is to drive a community-based grassroots movement for PWIDs, combining sports, healthcare, and community inclusion – and that includes continual facilitation for equal employment opportunities.

Specifically, through our programmatic work in Athlete Leadership, we find ways for athletes to develop both personal and professional skills – to demonstrate their leadership abilities as they contribute to their communities, workplaces, and society meaningfully.

Q: What challenges and opportunities lie in tapping on this pool of talent? How can employers address these challenges and opportunities in a proper and ethical manner?

PWIDs are an under-represented group in society. According to the UN, the unemployment rate for PWDs (which includes PWIDs), across APAC is usually double that of the general population and often as high as 80% or more. For economic independence to start becoming a reality for PWIDs, there needs to be fair and equal access to quality education and real opportunities to succeed in the workplace.

It must be noted that PWIDs remain one of the most underserved, misunderstood, and stigmatised populations in the world. They do not enjoy equal opportunities, whether at the workplace, in schools, access to quality healthcare, or on the sports field – especially in lower-income countries.

According to research done by Special Olympics surveying attitudes and perceptions of the public towards PWIDs, awareness of intellectual disabilities is moderate, only 60% of Asia Pacific respondents were aware of intellectual disabilities, and less than one in three respondents have personally interacted with PWIDs. Intellectual disabilities also ranked low as a concern in the region, with environment, poverty, and human rights being the key concerns of the region.

Given this, there is a tendency for communities to isolate or keep PWIDs apart from mainstream society because of their differences. This amplifies misunderstandings and fear of the unknown, which can heighten the schism and deepen prejudice.

Misconceptions about PWIDs need to be addressed openly to mitigate prejudices and bias. Most of the time, these limitations and inequalities faced by PWIDs are there simply because we do not even try to get to know or understand them, the tyranny of low expectations ensues which can curb their potential.

Breaking down barriers requires a deeper understanding of the issues that PWIDs face and being able to communicate clearly with them is the first step to eradicating the schism. Being open to having authentic conversations with PWIDs in our workplace, school, and social events will bring us together in helping us overcome our own blind spots and challenges when it comes to hiring PWIDs.

Q: In charting the path forward, what are some mistakes or misconceptions you've seen employers make in supporting or hiring PWIDs, and what can they do instead?

It would be challenging to dictate a set of rules around how organisations can manage a PWID because just like anybody else, every PWID is different. If I can provide some insights based on what I have observed on the playing field in the way teams are put together and the manner in which coaches interact with PWIDs, the same principle can be applied in the workplace as well.

When our coaches train our Special Olympics athletes, they train them as they would any other player, where none of the technical training tactics change but coaches take more time to be sensitive to certain learning modes. Employers can also take additional self-awareness steps when interacting with a PWID in a work setting.

There is a difference between meaningful employment versus hiring to meet a diversity quota. It is crucial to acknowledge that diversity does not automatically equate to inclusion in the employment process.

Existing policies will need to change for companies to truly be an inclusive space for PWIDs to work in. We should not be hiring PWIDs simply because they help us check a box in our D&I targets, we should be hiring them because they can do the job, regardless of their disability.

Businesses that truly want to transform their internal culture and empower a marginalised, under-represented talent pool should start changing their existing policies and practices to better support an inclusive workforce and invest the necessary time and effort in maximising the employee’s potential.

Q: How should workplaces change to balance the needs of a diverse workforce? What should organisations do to raise internal awareness and build an inclusive company culture?

The first step to creating an inclusive and diverse workplace is acknowledging that more needs to be done. Recruitment is a critical starting point. A referral-based programme, for example, can unintentionally cause an imbalance in the diverse makeup of the workforce, especially if employees refer candidates of the same backgrounds. It is therefore important that HR leaders are using a variety of recruiting mediums in their search for a new hire. This practice can help facilitate greater inclusion in the workforce.

Organisations could also start by implementing diversity training, for example, to get leaders and employees to understand and stand behind the importance and need for a diverse workforce. Specific to PWIDs, leaders can instill a role-based approach to inclusivity that considers the environment that PWIDs will be coming into and what working in the company would look like for them.

Q: What do you expect to see in tackling discrimination, including unconscious discrimination, in the workplace and empowering those with disabilities?

Our movement can only be effective when we form meaningful alliances across society; within community-based organisations, educators, policymakers, industry associations and businesses.

There have been some progressive changes in policies in countries like Singapore, which recently launched its Enabling Masterplan 2030 roadmap in August this year. The plan includes an aspirational target of 40% employment of people with disabilities by 2030. While this is a positive step towards inclusion, long-term progress ultimately requires adequate infrastructure, expertise, and mindset change to drive sustainable change.

To drive that crucial mindset shift, it is important that employers provide PWIDs with the opportunities and relevant platforms to dialogue and share their experiences with their colleagues without intellectual disabilities, to mitigate challenges and opportunities faced at the workplace. In this way, we can create a truly inclusive workplace where PWIDs are able to learn, thrive, and be respected.

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