On 9 December 2005, Ramakrishna G. left his marketing job with a Bangalore-based insurance company to explore the information technology (IT) industry. But there was a problem: The data-entry work Ramakrishna, then 27, was assigned required him to be glued to a computer screen, best suited to people with good eyesight. Ramakrishna can’t see at all.

The JAWS screen reader, a computer program that allows visually disabled users to read the screen either with a text-to-speech output or by a refreshable Braille display, allowed him to do the work. He has also used a free and open-source NWDA screen reader for Windows.

Now 37, Ramakrishna works with IT company Ace-Data Devices Pvt. Ltd in Gurgaon, Haryana. His work includes handling clients and their emails, and recording the day-to-day monetary transactions of the firm. He continues to uses JAWS.

“Whether in people’s attitude towards my disability or the lack of technology at the workplace, it’s an everyday struggle for me," says Ramakrishna, an avid fan of musician A.R. Rahman. “I survive all the negativity by listening to his music."

Ramakrishna says companies should have disabled-friendly parking, specia pathways and seperate exit plans for emergencies. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“There is a huge problem in the way we approach disability at our workplace—be it employment of a disabled person or making the workplace more suitable to such people," says Bangalore-based Raj Narayan, chief human resources (HR) officer at jewellery and watch maker Titan Co. Ltd. “It is unfortunate that our society still believes that disabled people are not on a par with other employees with regard to skills and intelligence, and considers them a liability."

Bangalore-based Seema Nair, head, HR, Cisco Systems (India) Pvt. Ltd, a technology firm, says the root problem is at the basic and higher education stages. “We do not see enough integration in terms of primary schooling and higher education, with the result that many individuals who could have become part of the mainstream workforce are simply not equipped to even apply for positions," she says.

But this is not the only factor responsible for keeping disabled people out of the workplace. Factors such as equal participation, team activities or even day-to-day communication become significant employment barriers, affecting their performance. “Companies provide the latest software in computers, but what they fail to understand is that we also need the assistance of a computer guy who is trained to deal with disabled employees," says Asif Iqbal, manager, advisory, at the consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers India, Kolkata. Iqbal is visually challenged.

Savita Singh, a 27-year-old who works at a Costa Coffee outlet in south Delhi’s Green Park area, believes that equality is the key to making the workplace more disabled-friendly. “Even the technology used across the organization should be standardized so that it becomes easier for disabled employees to seek help," she says. “Although it helps if the other employees know basic sign language," she adds. Singh can’t speak or hear.

We asked disabled employees and HR managers about some ways in which a workplace could be made more conducive. Here’s what they suggest:

Awareness and training

It is obvious that all employees should be sensitized about how to work with disabled colleagues, but it also works the other way round. “An initial sensitizing session isn’t enough. Programmes to discuss these issues should be held regularly and opportunities such as games or festivals must be organized to increase the off-work related conversation within the organization," says Mumbai-based Soraya Rebello, vice-president, HR, Jakson Hospitality Pvt. Ltd. Several programmes, like Ganpati puja or even cooking competitions, are held regularly at Jakson Hospitality so that everyone can participate and interact.

According to Bangalore-based Ruchir Falodiya, brand executive, jewellery division, at Titan, the onus lies on disabled employees too. “Disabled employees should also keep in mind that good body language and confidence will make the whole integration process much easier," says Falodiya, who is visually challenged. Titan has 123 disabled employees across India.

Outside support and audits

When it comes to handling disabled employees, Mumbai-based Dominic White, regional head, HR, South Asia and India, at Standard Chartered bank, is clear about one thing: Let the people who know best handle it.

“We at Standard Chartered collaborate with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and organizations who work in the field of disability, to come and train our averagely abled employees about the issues and problems disabled people could face at the workplace," says White. Standard Chartered also asks such organizations to conduct independent audits to assess its initiatives and policies. “It helps us show the mirror," he adds. They act on the feedback to improve facilities and interaction between able-bodied and disabled employees.

Esha—People for the Blind, a Gurgaon-based non-profit, conducts workshops for companies and organizations to help sensitize employees to their disabled counterparts. “It’s usually a 4-hour workshop where we use humour to address serious issues and the result is that by the end of the session, people come out being more aware and sensitized," says Nidhi Arora, founder of Esha. “We tell companies that nobody wants to sit through boring PowerPoints and seminars; so let us do our job according to what we believe will work better with the employees." Arora founded Esha in 2005.

Go beyond work-related technology

While organizations are increasingly becoming technologically advanced, just providing work-related software for disabled employees isn’t enough. “We are in the age of smartphones, so it won’t be enough if you just give a screen-reader software to a disabled employee," says New Delhi-based Kirat Dhillon, director, HR and events, of the India office of the Society for Human Resource Management, a global body. “Make use of numerous speech-recognition, videoconferencing and sign-language apps that are available online and also occasionally install fun audio/video games to engage with disabled employees," she adds.

However, that doesn’t obviate the need to provide the latest software and technology to the disabled. A number of Indian companies are using the JAWS screen reader to help their visually challenged employees.

Companies like IBM have set up a Special Needs Systems group that develops India-specific technologies to assist people with disabilities. “We have recently developed technologies, including Hindi Speech Recognition software, IBM Easy Web Browsing, a browser that provides a user-friendly Web interface, including character enlargement, reading of text aloud and optimization of Web pages by changing font sizes and background colours, and tools like Sensei, a Web-enabled tool to evaluate a person’s spoken English skills, and IBM WebAdapt2Me to expand the space between lines of text and remove distracting backgrounds and animation," says Bangalore-based D.P. Singh, vice-president, HR, IBM India/South Asia.

Accessibility

It is not sufficient to put an elevator in your office building; making an integrated workplace requires much more. “How many offices have special pathways for visually impaired employees?" asks Ramakrishna. “Companies should think from our point of view as well and provide services such as disabled-friendly parking, wheelchair facilities and even a separate, and specialized, emergency exit plan for disabled people."

“Accessibility is the key aspect to make your workplace more integrated," says Nair. “Things like access to workstations through wide corridors, ramps at entrances to buildings and cafeterias, automated sliding doors, accessible washrooms on each floor, Braille in all lifts and meeting rooms, and audio announcements in elevators on reaching each floor, are some of the points so basic, yet they are extremely important for disabled employees," she adds.

Honest appraisal and feedback

Honest feedback is important for any employee, but when it comes to critiquing the performance of a disabled worker, most managers tend to adopt a somewhat lenient approach. “This is completely wrong," says Narayan. “While you must provide extra aid to your disabled employees, you should never ignore their lack of performance because of their disability. Honest feedback will help the disabled employee to be better at his/her work as he/she will feel as responsible as others for meeting targets and achieving results."

Formulate a proper policy

While there has been a lot of debate over issues like gender and harassment at the workplace, and the need to formulate specific guidelines on these, disability has hardly been discussed with such vigour. IBM’s Singh says, “We have a Policy for People with Disabilities that includes 3As: Accommodation—facilities that IBM provides to enable employees to work more independently and productively; Accessibility—providing individual people with disabilities the technology tools in the workplace and in the marketplace; and most importantly, Attitude—changing the values and beliefs that some people have regarding people with disabilities." IBM says it has had this policy globally since the 1990s.

Specialized programmes

While occasional training and awareness campaigns are essential, many companies are introducing specialized programmes under which it becomes mandatory to hire, interact with and even mentor people with disabilities.

Standard Chartered, for instance, has two such programmes—an Employability Program,wherein the company creates mainstream positions and hires people with disabilities as part of its policy, and Buddy Mentors, where employees with disabilities get their own buddy-mentor: a colleague, preferably from the same team. “Such programmes are extremely important for an organization and its disabled workforce. It helps in awareness and also makes companies integrate disabled people by proper rules and regulations," says White.

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