Clinical psychologist Divyanshu Ganatra.
Clinical psychologist Divyanshu Ganatra.

Tapping the disability talent pool

Being disabled is the narrative that gives me a sense of identity and protects my constitutional rights, says clinical psychologist Divyanshu Ganatra

My conversation with clinical psychologist and corporate trainer Divyanshu Ganatra opens with a short discussion on the best word to use while referring to the diversity group he represents. “Differently abled" is dismissed immediately; when he senses I am tripping over “disabled", he encourages me to say it out loud. “It upsets me when you don’t call me what I am," says Ganatra, who is blind.

With the International Day of Disabled Persons falling on 3 December, Ganatra discusses where Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) figure on corporate India’s radar, why you can’t put a price on hiring a disabled workforce, and how a truly inclusive company is one that eventually won’t need a diversity agenda. Excerpts from the interview:

You believe that the first step towards creating a more inclusive workspace is to reclaim the word “disabled". Why is terminology so important?

Being disabled is the narrative that gives me a sense of identity and protects my constitutional rights. But since there is a lot of awkwardness around disability, people from the mainstream community have developed terminology to make it more comfortable for them. It is how we are “normalized" (an ideology that promotes the theory that quality of life is the same for disabled people as for non-disabled people). “Differently abled", or a person with “special abilities", are politically correct descriptors used by able-bodied people to protect my feelings. They don’t realize that it doesn’t hurt my sentiments to be called what I am. If women can maintain a distinct and separate identity in the workplace as “women", why can’t I be called “disabled"?

Recently, Javed Abidi, the honorary director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, said “not even 1% of corporate India is inclusive". What is your opinion on this?

To begin with, the reported numbers for India’s disabled population are widely regarded as lower-than-actual figures. So if you’re talking about percentages employed in corporate India, you first need to ask—what’s your base? Having said that, I would also put the number at 1-2%. The media hype around companies that publicize their initiatives makes it seem like there is a lot happening. But we have barely made a dent.

Corporate diversity policies cover a broad spectrum of categories like gender, race, sexual orientation. Does that leave enough room for disabled people?

A company cannot have an all-encompassing policy for diversity without breaking it down to specifics. There are multiple, marginalized groups that come under this umbrella and you need to ensure every group has its needs met and is protected. For instance, if you talk about bringing in diversity through gender but you don’t have a committee for prevention of sexual harassment, then you are failing to protect that community’s interests. With disability, among other things, it can be access and facilities made available. Unfortunately, disability and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) are the least talked about marginalized groups in organizations.

Would you say that in corporate India, some disabilities have more opportunities than others?

Today, the entire population is not looked at as a potential employable pool to be tapped into. What organizations need to do is conduct career mapping to identify what are the specific jobs people with disabilities can do within the same company. For example, someone with a locomotive disability can do a desk job very easily. Then it becomes less about disability and more of ability mapping.

Do the costs of hiring people with disabilities outweigh the benefits?

That depends on how you look at it. The minute you view it as a cost, then you look for ROI (return on investment). So are you looking at investing in the people that you are hiring or are your people your cost centres? Great corporations are the ones that believe the former. A company like Lemon Tree, for instance, gets that hiring PwDs makes simple business sense. You get a loyal pool of employees who aren’t going to quit the moment someone offers them a little more cash. They are innovative when it comes to solving problems because life has taught them to overcome. That’s a great workforce right there.

Companies that pursue purpose, along with profit, are the ones who will thrive. A visionary leader will make this investment because s/he is thinking ahead. After all, evolution has taught us the importance of diversity—the strongest, most evolved species are the ones who have not inbred.

The steps to building an inclusive organization...

I know of PwDs who were hired to fill the 3% disability quota at a large Indian public sector bank recently, but all they do is go to work and sit. That is not inclusion in the right spirit. To really make a difference, you need to be clear about why you are doing it. It can’t be a PR opportunity, mandate or box-ticking exercise. It has to be because you believe s/he is the best person for the job.

It’s a long road, but two things will get us there—contact and empathy. Most people have had little or no contact with a PwD and have all these stereotypical notions about us. That’s why there is awkwardness when you’re working together. My endeavour is to build empathy through contact and dialogue. When you see that although we may do things a little differently, we have the same aspirations and goals, you’ll begin to believe we can be great colleagues to work with.