[AI] Article on disability in business world magazine

Mohammed Asif Iqbal asifmaiqbal at hotmail.com
Sat Aug 25 04:09:20 EDT 2007

Definitely Abled

Corporates are now hiring people with disabilities, but this step is just a small drop in the ocean.


In a beehive of cubicles at the Nokia Siemens Networks office in Gurgaon, sits 35-year-old Nitin Goyal surrounded by office files and tabulation notes.
An MBA from the University Business School in Chandigarh, Goyal started out as a finance executive in 1997, became group head of corporate treasury and
got promoted again as an internal auditor earlier this year. Though Goyal's career had been going places, he himself did not. A road accident 12 years
ago left him paralysed from below the waist and bound him to a wheelchair. But today, Goyal is one of the cheerleaders of a new corporate policy that welcomes
people with disabilities. "My wheelchair has no more relevance than my pair of spectacles," he says. 

A few years ago, the likes of Goyal would have made for an exceptional or even odd fill in the corporate workspace. But with companies in the high-growth
sectors tapping into uncharted talent pools, people with disabilities are now frequently found in corporate cubicles across the country. Sectors such as
IT, IT-enabled services (ITes), business processing outsourcing (BPO), hospitality, retail and telecom happily welcome them as employees. "One big reason
is high attrition rates," says Shanti Raghavan, founder and managing trustee of Enable India, an agency that assists in finding suitable employment for
the disabled. "Also, the demand now for skilled labour far outstrips the supply. So, these highgrowth sectors have no choice but to look for suitable employees,
including the disabled." 

The trend is most visible in the BPO sector. Take the case of the Bangalore-based Progeon, which launched an initiative in 2005 to employ disabled people
in droves. Currently, there are over 150 employees with various degrees of disabilities in this Infosys-run company. According to Nandita Gurjar, the vice-president
of human resources at Progeon, by the end of this year, about 2 per cent of its workforce would be people with disabilities. 

"IT and ITes companies have quickly adapted to accommodate the needs of those who are differently abled," says Charudatta Jadhav, an associate consultant
with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in Mumbai. Coming from Jadhav, the information is first-hand. At 13, he lost his vision but he graduated in Economics
and managed to get a job in the Indian Bank. While at the bank, Jadhav earned a Masters in computer application. "I realised that my growth depended on
finding a work sector where my disability would not be an impediment," he says. 

Jadhav couldn't have found his nest at a better time.The current labour demand forces private companies to act beyond legal imperatives regarding the disabled.
Legally, the Persons with Disabilities (equal opportunities, protection of rights and full participation) Act of 1995 makes it mandatory only for public
sector undertakings (PSU) to have over 3 per cent of their workforce composed of people with disabilities. PSUs such as BHEL, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation,
Bharat Petroleum Corporation and National Thermal Power Corporation have toed the line. But they have the disabled primarily handling back-end jobs requiring
only low-level skills. 

Interestingly, the Act also offers incentives to employers 'to ensure that at least 5 per cent of their workforce is composed of persons with disabilities'.
So far, the government has not declared any sops. The private sector, however, has no such legal complusions. They can choose not to hire people with disabilities.
Given the labour crunch, the sector is not waiting for the windfall. 

Merit Matters
Disabled or not, the corporate assessment of employees zooms in on merit. "My company had been supportive when needed," says Goyal. "But they have been
equally demanding in performance and appraisals." Agrees 36-year-old Jadhav, who joined TCS six months ago after stints in other private firms. "I was
being judged entirely on my ability to perform," he says. "I came to know that the chances to grow in the company were aplenty to me as to anyone else."
Visually impaired Mohammed Asif Iqbal, 29, sites similar reasons for joining PricewaterhouseCoopers in Kolkata as a consultant. "When it comes to productivity,
companies are equally demanding from employees with disabilities too."

Besides the increased opportunities, the high growth sectors are found suitable to disabled people for another reason: a significant proportion of jobs
are desk-based. "It's a boon for skilled employees with mobility impairments," says Sujit Gupta, chairman of CII's core group on disability. Most of these
companies also arrange pick-up and drop-off facilities for their employees. Industries such as hospitality are also driving in policies to become equal
opportunities employers. Last year, ITC Welcomgroup took a decision to actively seek out and hire people with disabilities. Today, the company employs
over 65 people with disabilities across its various properties. According to Niranjan Khatri, general manager of Welcomenviron Initiatives, ITC Windsor
Hotel in Bangalore has become the first hotel in the country to hire people with disabilities - they comprise 3 per cent of its total workforce. 

Such initiatives not just help corporate groups meet their labour demand, but they also mend lives. Sujatha Debnath, a 33-year-old occupational therapist,
was struck with polio since childhood. Her career came to an end five years ago after three bad falls that shattered her pelvic bone. A worried Debnath
was forced to look for alternative opportunities. Two years ago, with support from Family Of Disabled, a Delhi-based charity, she joined ITC Sheraton in
Delhi to handle calls in the engineering control room. Today, Debnath is a shift supervisor and manages a team of nine people. "My colleagues and management
are more than supportive," she says. "I feel so secure and comfortable that I give my very best to the job." 

Fighting Stigmas
If there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel for disabled employees, it has come through by crossing several hurdles. At Progeon, it was about overcoming
the traditional scepticism among other employees on the real ability of disabled people to cope with high stress levels. ITC, on the other hand, says Khatri,
was worried about the safety of disabled employees. Both Progeon and ITC had an unenviable task of filtering down the decision to secondary levels. Both
were confronted with the common misconceptions - low levels of productivity, extra costs and difficulties in training people with disabilities. 

But the overall performance by employees with disabilities allayed all fears. And with attrition rates in the BPO sector anywhere between 30 per cent and
40 per cent, Progeon found out that this rate among its disabled employees was less than 1 per cent. "It meant a stable workforce, increased productivity
and enhanced sensitivity and tolerance at the workplace," says Gurjar. Raghavan adds that companies realised that hiring such people had multiple advantages.
"They bring in a wonderful diversity in the organisation, innovative solutions and an improved teamwork," she says. "It also introduced a sense of social
responsibility among employees." 

No Smooth Ride
Though the corporate initiatives look good at the moment, the employed disabled in India are just a drop in the ocean. The 2001 census found the total
number of disabled people in India was 22 million - a figure disputed by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment of Disabled People (NCPEDP), which
says it could be close to 70 million. Javed Abidi, the centre's executive director, says about 7 per cent of India's population is disabled. Given the
lack of reliable data, it is even harder to find the number of the people with disabilities currently employed.

A 1999 NCPEDP survey held in 100 major companies said the average employment rate of the disabled people in the public sector was 0.54 per cent. It was
0.28 per cent in the private sector, and a mere 0.05 per cent in multinational companies. Abidi agrees that in eight years these figures might have climbed
up, but there is still a long way to go before the Disability Act's recommended 5 per cent rate of employment is achieved. A recent study by TCS-CII, 'The
Report on Employability of Differently Abled Persons in the Industries', found that in India less than 1 per cent of the employable disabled persons actually
have jobs. A majority of them earn less than Rs 2,000 a month. 

Moves to hire people with disabilities are not new. But what sets these recent attempts apart is that they are part of companies' equal opportunities policy.
Hiring people with disabilities, so far, fell under the social responsibility agenda. Being an equal opportunities employer means that companies do not
discriminate against people with disabilities during the hiring process or after. The companies also provide them with the infrastructural support. "It
means fostering chances of retention, satisfaction and growth," says Infosys's Gurjar. 

But the road ahead is not smooth. Corporate bodies and rights activists for the disabled have identified the potholes. Non-inclusive nature of the country's
educational institutions, the low quality of education at the specialists schools, lack of suitable vocational training and inaccessibility to public buildings
and transports system are some. According to the TCS-CII report, the lack of accessibility to workplaces and to curriculums is a major hurdle. It summed
up that the "employment [of disabled] people is contingent upon two facilitators - education and spatial and technological access". 

For A Barrier-Free World 

Shivani Gupta, 38, of AccessAbility, a Delhi-based specialist consultancy outfit, has had enough of Delhi's public transport system. She finds it to be
the most disabled-unfriendly transport system for people like her on a wheel chair. No surprise, then, that Gupta is now a staunch advocate of a barrier-free
environment and the concept of universal design. "We need to create buildings that are accessible and usable by everyone, including people with disabilities,"
she says. "It supports the independent functioning of individuals so that they can participate without assistance and with dignity, in everyday activities."
Which is what universal design is all about.

Gupta suggests that it is wise for any upcoming building to provide accessibility at the design and construction stage itself. At that stage, the additional
costs would be just about 2 per cent of the total project cost. "Building in accessibility features at a later stage will not only be more expensive but
also very difficult," she says.

Anjlee Agarwal, executive director of Samarthya, a Delhi-based NGO, also propagates a barrier-free environment. Samarthya worked in tandem with the Delhi
Metro and DTC to make the city's transport system accessible to disabled people. A majority of the public buildings and transport facilities are still
not disabled-friendly despite the Disability Act (1995) clearly stating that the Central Coordination Committee "ensure a barrier-free environment in public
places, work places, etc". The answer, feel Gupta and Agarwal, lies in an increased awareness about problems faced by the disabled, and sensitisation and
training of architects, town planners and policy makers. 

Specialist consultancy outfits such as Raghvan's Enable India and Shivani Gupta's AccessAbility are working earnestly to overcome these hurdles. They provide
end-to-end solutions in training, employability and accessibility for the disabled. "Education systems in India still tend to exclude those who are disabled,"
says Gupta. "The curriculum of these so-called specialist schools is outdated and fails to equip people with disabilities with the skills necessary for
employment in the new economy. So, when the private sector comes to recruit, we have an incredibly small pool of people with requisite skills." Exclusive
schools also deny a person the opportunity to acquire the soft skills necessary in negotiating contemporary workspaces. 

While the cases of Goyal, Jadhav, Debnath, Asif and the rest are inspiring, corporate India is yet to shake off its apathy entirely and implement policies
that are more inclusive in nature. As experiences prove, a red carpet for the disabled not only mends lives, but also builds businesses.

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