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Tapping the disabled workforce

Tapping the disabled workforce
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First Published: Tue, Dec 25 2007. 11 37 PM IST
Mumbai-based Hari Raghavan, 30, works for IBM India as a specialist in banking and financial services and helps companies in these businesses find technology solutions to business problems. In some ways, Raghavan is the typical software services employee. He works five days a week, up to eight hours a day; most days, he is in by 10am and starts his day by using Google alerts to scan for news related to his areas of interest. But Raghavan, who has an MBA from Mumbai’s Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS), is different in one way: he is visually impaired.
Raghavan reflects a growing trend in India—of companies hiring disabled employees for a variety of reasons, from a corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative to tapping a larger talent pool. “In a talent-starved economy, it’s highly expensive for companies to have a narrow approach to talent pool,” says Ganesh Shermon, partner and head, human capital advisory service, KPMG India, an audit and consulting firm.
Raghavan, in fact, has the typical MBA’s career progression chart too—in seven years, he has had four jobs, including the IBM one. He has previously worked at Tata Finance Ltd, Jasubhai Digital Media, and GE Money.
In Bangalore, 25-year-old Veerabhadra E. is a team leader at back-office service provider Vindhya eInfomedia Pvt. Ltd. He works six days a week, and over 10 hours a day, and says he loves what he is doing. Veerabhadra is orthopaedically disabled.
The beginning
Companies such as IBM India Pvt. Ltd, Shell companies in India , HSBC India, E.I. DuPont India Pvt. Ltd, Tata Steel Ltd, Hindustan Unilever Ltd and Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd started hiring disabled people as part of their human resources policy of being an equal opportunity employer and increasing diversity in the workplace. The trend has since grown to include several other companies.
Even regional players such as Erode-based Sakthi Trading Co., the maker of Sakthi Masala, Vadodara-based engineering company Jyoti Ltd and Pune-based Sharayu Precision & Associated Manufacturing Co. hire disabled people for reasons ranging from business needs to doing their bit towards corporate social responsibility.
Vindhya eInfomedia began operations in June 2006 with five people. It currently has 90 employees, out of which 75-80 are disabled.
Next month, the company, which says it hires people exclusively on merit, is adding a 400-seat operation. “You don’t need rocket scientists to do the kind of work we do and there are plenty of disabled people who are educated enough to work in almost all sectors,” says Pavithra Y.S., managing director, Vindhya eInfomedia. Chennai-based Laser Soft Infosystems Ltd, which has around 82 physically challenged employees out of a total of over 500 people, hires through advertisements and referrals. Similarly, Infosys BPO began hiring disabled people in 2005 when it recognized the need to tap different talent pools. Its ads encourage people with disabilities to apply. Currently, 171 of Infosys BPO’s 13,000-plus employees are disabled.
It isn’t just companies in the IT and back-office business that are hiring disabled people. Yum Restaurants International recently hired 37 hearing impaired people for its new KFC outlet in Kolkata, the first time the company has done this in India, according to the company’s chief operating officer (Indian subcontinent),Tarun Lal.
Lal says the initiative is part of the company’s corporate social responsibility programme, but that, “along the way, we realized it made business sense. People with disability exhibit higher degree of focus and concentration,” Lal adds.
Pepsico India Holdings Pvt. Ltd’s executive director in charge of human resources, Pavan Bhatia, agrees. “In 2006, we tested some hearing impaired people for bottle inspection and found very good results. They were able to concentrate better and detect any foreign body in the bottle more easily than able bodied employees,” he says. Today, across seven plants, the company employs 150 disabled people and it is looking to increase the number by another 100 in 2008.
Sound business sense
HR managers say there are several benefits to hiring disabled people.
They cite higher retention rate and greater value in certain roles. “Most often differently abled employees are more loyal to an organization,” says Bhatia.
Diversity, say companies, is also good for the workplace because it increases productivity and creativity, brings in new skills and a new approach to solving problems.
“To bring in innovation and greater customer understanding, it’s important to have a diverse workforce,” says Melita George, who is designated India diversity, people with disabilities leader, IBM India & Asia Pacific. “Also, a diverse and inclusive workforce completes your image as an employer of choice,” adds George.
Technology makes it easier for organizations to employ disabled people and for such people to contribute their best to the company. IBM, for instance, developed a Braille printer in 1975. It also has a talking typewriter and computers with a talking display terminal.
The company has a special needs systems group that develops technologies that assist people with disabilities. The group recently developed the Home Page Reader tool, a self-voicing web browser.
Cisco Systems has Cisco Unity voice messaging system that offers adjustable playback speed for messages and adjustable response times for people who need more time to respond to system prompts.
For people who have difficulty pressing keys, Cisco offers a communications system that can be operated through voice commands.
Still, companies hiring disabled people need to invest in making their workplace accessible, and train and sensitize other employees. It’s worth the effort and money. “Companies which don’t see the long-term returns on this investment are losing out on a good resource pool,” says Bhatia.
Training and sensitization is critical since the awareness levels of normally abled people on disabilities is low. “Most of us don’t know how to deal with differently abled,” says Pamela Bhagat, head, education and ability, Confederation of Indian Industry. “We either are patronizing or just ignorant.”
Companies hiring disabled people usually use professional agencies to hire such people, and also to help them understand what else they need to do.
Pepsico took the help of Ali Yavar Jung National Institute for the Hearing Handicapped, an autonomous organization under the ministry of social justice and empowerment that deals with various aspects of rehabilitation of hearing handicapped, and Anubhuti-HR Consultants for the Differently Abled, a human resource solutions firm that specializes in finding jobs for the disabled. Yum sought the services of not-for-profit organization, Silence. And IBM works with non governmental organizations that helps it recruit disabled people.
Mind over matter
Still, not every company looks at the disabled as a talent pool waiting to be tapped. Despite topping his class at business school, Raghavan was not picked by any company during campus recruitment. “I was the only one in my batch who didn’t get a job,” he says. “I had appeared for almost 50 group discussions but could not make it to the personal interview rounds despite doing well in the discussions,” he adds. “Obviously, companies only saw my disability, not my competence.”
Javed Abidi, executive director of the National Council for the Promotion of Employment of People with Disability, an advocacy organization working for disability rights, says a strong anti-discriminatory policy can help fair representation of disabled people in both the public and private sector. Abidi works with the corporate sector to define clear employment policies for the disabled within their agenda.
“No effective steps are being taken for implementation of the provisions of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, that intends to grant opportunities to the people with disabilities,” he adds.
Employers and HR people say the main issue is because disabled people usually do not possess the requisite educational qualifications. “Skill gap is an issue with the entire working population but yes, it is very sharpened in the case of disabled people,” says Anubhuti Mittal, founder, Anubhuti-HR Consultants for the Differently Abled. Experts say the solution lies in having an inclusive education system and vocational training. “The differently abled are divorced from mainstream education because of our education system,” says Mittal.
Companies may be forced to play a part in helping change the status quo as they face a talent crunch and an ageing workforce, all at once.
Mittal, who has placed around 120 disabled people thus far in 2007, is now looking to expand her focus to women and senior citizens and says that she will be happy if, five years from now, there is no need to place a specialist consultant to place or hire disabled people because companies realize what they are missing out on.
“It’s not the disability but the environment, which is disenabling,” says Raghavan.
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First Published: Tue, Dec 25 2007. 11 37 PM IST