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Dispensing Disability Confidence

Dispensing Disability Confidence


Used with permission of the author:
Author: Jeremy Opperman
Disability Solutions (Pty) Ltd
23 February 2007

Workinfo.com Human Resources Magazine Volume 1 Issue 4, 2007

What is disability?

Is it something associated with an individual’s afflictions only? Or is it rather to do with the interrelationship between people with disabilities and society? In fact, can we tell the difference between barriers and disabilities?

Why is disability such a paradox, sparking such attention and reticence at the same time?

The answer: Not nearly enough is known about disability to make informed decisions that might affect and implicate it.

This in itself should not be surprising, if we reflect on how few people have actually worked with a person with a disability. Or how few people attended school or university with learners with disabilities. As these are the most socially interactive times of our lives, where else are we likely to meet, interact with and know people with disabilities?

In South Africa , despite representing a not inconsiderable segment of the population, no less than 10 – 15 percent, disability is still regarded as something of an oddity and novelty in the commercial sector, either as staff or customers.

The Brussels Sprouts of Equity

The reality is that over 95 percent of persons with disabilities are unemployed in South Africa . At the same time, the overwhelming majority of children with disabilities still attend “special needs schools” and, sadly, a staggeringly high percentage of children with disabilities still remain unaccounted for in the education system.

As a net result this “out of sight” existence of persons with disabilities has led to a largely “out of mind” attitude amongst able bodied people, resulting in wholesale ignorance and often a lack of consideration of what is in fact a perfectly natural phenomenon. Instead, a whole subculture of myth, stereotype and simplification surround and replace the facts and truth.

This can be illustrated by my own experience after graduating from university, to be faced with society’s very narrow perception of employment opportunities for any person with a disability. Fortunately, only being visually impaired and not having to overcome traditional physical barriers, these “opportunities” did exist … in the form of an albeit limited variety of telephony, switchboard and reception positions. Eighteen years later, even in our highly diversity- and equity-conscious country, and despite improved legislation, little has changed and disability is still like the Brussels sprouts of equity, as I like to call it: the stuff you leave till last on your plate and, if you can get away with it, you will leave altogether.

The undeniable possibility that disability could either gradually or instantly effect anyone’s lives or the lives of those near them is seldom appreciated. This makes disability uniquely personal in diversity terms. This can be best illustrated, if one considers that it is impossible for a man, for instance, to truly relate to experiences of a woman; or for a white person in South Africa to truly relate to the experiences of a black South African growing up under Apartheid. However, it is perfectly feasible for either group to relate to disability, since it could visit anyone at any time, irrespective of race, creed, gender, age etc. It is significant to point out that less than 20 percent of people with disabilities are born with their disabilities and that over 80 percent acquire their disabilities later in life.

I cannot help feel that if this reality were appreciated more, much of the resistance to disability rights would be overcome.

Understanding the Enigma

As purveyors of disability awareness and Access consulting, experience has shown us at Disability Solutions that the key to successful disability integration in South African organizations, is the building of Disability Confidence, through increased awareness.

Naturally, it is essential that senior personnel and leaders are empowered to become just as confident, as this will greatly facilitate their ability to make informed decisions.I enjoy the quote from ex-Chief Executive of British Telecom, Sir Peter Bonnfield: “Companies that do not embrace Diversity, including Disability, as a core business issue, are simply missing the point”

To achieve awareness, requires an uncomplicated but structured approach, which, in this order, includes breaking emotional, intellectual and practical barriers.   

A core aspect of our training sessions is a powerful visualization exercise in which delegates visualize themselves living and working with a particular disability: waking, washing, dressing, eating, arriving at work, finding one’s way to the work station etc. This is different from imagining someone else’s experience, but involves adopting a disability for one’s self. They explore ways of managing their jobs, reflect on implications at home and consider accessing society in the context of the disability they have chosen.

The exercise is conducted in silence with eyes shut and lasts about 10 minutes. In the over 400 occasions I have done this, it has never failed. Delegates invariably are moved to respond with gravity and shock when asked to provide feedback on their experience.

Once emotional barriers have been broken, the stage is set to address some of the prevailing myth and ignorance about disability in the form of a No Nonsense Reality Check, stating facts as they are, globally and locally and including all aspects of society.

Following from this, once delegates are emotionally and intellectually better equipped, a critical examination of resources and facilities, such as legislation, definitions, codes and terminology, is undertaken.  

Then it is time to explore how to create and adopt a strategy for disability inclusion in that organization or community, NOT just as employees, but as customers and visitors as well. This involves the necessity of assessing physical and attitudinal barriers. Being equipped to remove barriers, and then having the discipline to maintain a barrier-free environment.

Rather than cramming delegates full of politically correct data, this process encourages participants to understand the enigma that is disability. It empowers them to be able to meet disability on its own terms and to be able to appropriately and equitably interact with people with disabilities at work, in society and personally.

Delegates almost unanimously react in the same way after every workshop. Their comments invariably include: “It was an eye opening experience!” As facilitator, I am always awed at the impact that this learning has on individuals at a deep personal level.

One can only hope and have faith that they maintain their fervor and, in their own way, begin to make a difference and strive toward a natural and unhesitant inclusion of disability into mainstream society.

Jeremy Opperman is co-founder of Disability Solutions, which provides training and other resource services for the integration of disability into the workplace and society. See: www.disabilitysolutions.co.za

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


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