Embracing the disabled workforce in Africa

Too many disabled Africans are excluded from the labour market. More must be done to include them.


There are an estimated 3m people living with disabilities in South Africa, comprising around 7.6% of the population.

However, across the country its employers do not comply with the government requirement that at least 2% of their workforce is disabled, leaving millions of talented disabled workers outside the labour market. Businesses, too, miss out by having a less diverse employee base and not representing their entire customer community.

It’s not just in South Africa where disabled job seekers are having a difficult time, with similar statistics coming out of Kenya and Nigeria. To earn an income, disabled people often have no choice but to participate in the informal economy, where their specific needs cannot be catered for effectively.

“Entering the job market proves to be very difficult for persons with disabilities,” according to Ola Abu Alghaib, the global head of influencing and learning at disability charity Leonard Cheshire. “Through our programmes all over the world we learned that, on the government’s side, inadequate policies and standards often do not take into account the needs of persons with disabilities. There may also be a lack of provision of services and inadequate funding.”

Prejudices and misconceptions

It’s not just institutional issues that limit job prospects for disabled Africans, with prejudices and misconceptions held by employers breeding negative attitudes in the workplace. Some business owners believe that hiring disabled workers will require major adjustments to the workplace in order to accommodate these new employees, although this is not always the case.

For example, hiring someone with a sight impairment may only require the purchase of specialist computer software that can zoom in and highlight text. To accommodate an employee with chronic fatigue, a flexible work schedule can be arranged.

A study from the US Office of Disability Employment Policy found that just over 70% of accommodations to provide disabled staff with what they need to work cost nothing at all. The actual process of hiring a person with disabilities is not as complex or arduous as some corporate recruiters may believe.

In recent years NGOs and charities have been created that seek to further the interests of disabled people and partner with organisations to match people with disabilities with relevant job opportunities. These charities can help make the recruitment process go as smoothly as possible and ensure both the employer and employee are as successful as possible.

Disability support groups and charities have launched initiatives aimed at getting more people with disabilities into the workforce, but businesses need to embrace the potential of disabled workers.

“The problem starts with the recruitment and selection policies of the companies that are not reviewed to accommodate people with disabilities,” says Dr Brian Kwazi Majola, a lecturer specialising in labour issues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “Line managers and other employees, because of a lack of training and proper coordination on disability issues, do not know how to treat disabled Africans, especially those hired because of affirmative action policies.”

For disabled people to fully participate in society, governments across the continent need to offer more support. Alghaib says that his organisation recommends the revision of existing legislation in line with the standards set by the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and 2030 Agenda, the development of national disability strategies and the implementation of action plans to ensure the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the job market.

Government programmes to address these issues have been sparse, with disabled charities facing an uphill battle to improve the representation of people with disabilities. Only when businesses understand that it makes financial sense to seek out talented people with disabilities will this untapped workforce truly reach their full potential. Schemes that increase public knowledge and understanding of disabilities will further help the integration of people with disabilities in companies of all sizes.

Benefits for companies

Apart from the wider social improvements businesses will see by having a more diverse workforce, employing people with disabilities can bring direct commercial benefits. When companies make efforts to create a more inclusive organisation, disabled customers feel more comfortable and can rest assured knowing that their specific needs will be catered for, while non-disabled individuals also appreciate this support.

A study by the Charity Awareness Monitor found that 77% of the general public gave a higher rating to companies that actively seek to employ suitable disabled individuals. South Africa may not be working as hard as some disability charities would like in ensuring people with disabilities are present in both the public and private sectors, but the country still leads all others on the continent.

“South Africa has been doing fairly well as there is an increase in the employment of people with disabilities compared to 2005,” says Dr Majola. “Countries like Sudan, Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda and Senegal have made progress in terms of prioritising disability issues and introducing legislation with the assistance of countries like Sweden and Denmark.”

Dr Jerry Gule, chairman of South African Employers for Disability, acknowledges that while some African countries are making progress in including disabled people in the workplace, many others are doing very little, if anything. “The setting up of continental bodies or organisations bringing together persons interested in advancing the cause of persons with disabilities is a good sign,” concludes Gule. “But the fact is, there is still a lot more to be done across the continent.”

Finbarr Toesland

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