Theres probably never been so much focus on the topics of diversity and inclusion in the workplace as there is today.
In many countries, including Thailand, legislation exists with the aim of ensuring that the rights of minorities and equal treatment irrespective of gender and ethnicity are protected both at work and in society. Multinationals include vast amounts each year in their budgets on promoting their adherence to providing an inclusive workplace.
Despite this, one group still seems to struggle to have its voice heard – those with disabilities or with learning challenges.
Within too many cultures, this groups needs and rights are all too often not discussed or acknowledged and therefore not understood. Without any real understanding of the disabled, it becomes difficult to get diversity in the workplace.
Diversity in Disability
As with everything in life, disabilities come in different forms. And each disabled or challenged person is unique, with their individual needs and their own potential to contribute to society. If youve met someone with autism, then youve met one person with one type of autism. Every individual has different challenges and skills, and everyone is unique.
Whether the challenge or disability is cognitive, physical, hearing or vision, so many people with skills struggle to gain productive employment because too many potential employers just dont seem to manage to look past the disability to the person.
In Thailand alone over 1.7 million people are registered as having disabilities – thats almost three out of every 100 people here – but only 185,263 of those work. While some are unable to work, it is estimated that over 520,000 are looking for, but unable to find, employment. In other words, in a country where the unemployment rate among the general population has averaged around 1% for the last nine years or so, the unemployment rate among the disabled is over 70%.
Legal and Fiscal Incentives
Legislation designed to prevent discrimination against disabled people in Thailand dates back to 1991, and was most recently updated in 2010. Section 33 of the Persons with Disabilities Quality of Life Promotion Act BE2550 (2007) requires private and public businesses to hire one disabled person for every 100 able-bodied employees. There are also incentives to encourage inclusive business practices such as tax exemption. If more than 60% of a firms workforce are registered as disabled, the firm can qualify for such exemption.
The ultimate success of such well-meaning legislation in Thailand, as in anywhere else depends largely on attitudes throughout society. Quotas can be counterproductive if they also send the negative message that people with disabilities are employed because of the need to fill quotas rather than because of the important skills each individual can bring to the workplace.
Proactive, innovative companies recognise the need to do this but in order for this to succeed, their organisation will also need to form a culture of inclusion. It has been shown that unless disabled people are adopted into organisations that already subscribe to an inclusive culture, the outcome is unlikely to reap the benefits of the skills disabled individuals can bring to the workplace. In some cultures, the employment and role of disability officers has helped to overcome the lack of knowledge, appreciation and understanding of the learning-disabled but of course it takes time to develop that skillset as a way to help foster a culture of inclusion.
Without that culture, the danger is that placements might be offered in stereotypical roles, not ones which focus on the skillset of the individual and offer the opportunity to grow. An advocate for this is Max Simpson, one of the founders of Steps with Theera, a vocational training centre that enables teenagers and adults with special educational needs in Bangkok (and shortly in Phuket too) to achieve the qualifications and employment opportunities that otherwise they might be denied. Max feels strongly that improving educational opportunities is whats truly needed to make a difference, with almost 70% of children with learning disabilities currently not managing to complete elementary school.
Autism as Skill
The idea that the success of Silicon Valley is largely dependent upon the special skillsets of employees with a disproportionately high incidence of Autistic Spectrum Disorders has generated controversy. But Steve Silberman, who authored the provocative story ‘The Geek Syndrome in Wired Magazine in 2001, revisited the topic in his 2015 book, ‘Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently. Arguably one of the least controversial of Silbermans insights is that:
"People with autism are even more diverse than neurotypicals. Some are chatty, others are easily overwhelmed; others love intense sensation. Really theres more of a range within the spectrum than there is in normality".
Perhaps, thats the key insight for businesses. In Thailand, there are over 700,000 individuals with a huge range of challenges and disabilities, all seeking to make, and capable of making, a difference in the workplace. Max Simpson works closely with employers before placing Steps ‘graduates, making sure any necessary (usually relatively minor) accommodations are put in place, while also helping to prepare the expectations of the existing workforce.
This is vital as, in the absence of enough experienced disability inclusion officers, such a placement might be an employers first professional contact with a person with learning disabilities and their preconceptions of what they can and cannot achieve will need to be managed.
Benefits of Disability Employment
All businesses want to prosper, and countless studies shows that companies benefit from employing those who have learning disabilities. They show that a more inclusive workplace leads to increased productivity, a more satisfying work environment and greater stability for all employees. Studies by McKinsey have indicated that a diverse workforce increases financial returns.
Research for The Harvard Business Review has noted that firms who look to hire employees with inherent traits are more likely to grow market share as well as capture new markets.
The Saint Louis Regional Business Council has recognised that diversity and inclusion foster very positive team effects, including an increase in team effort, commitment and collaboration and an almost 20% improvement in loyalty across the entire workforce.
A study by Accenture, "The Disability Inclusion Advantage", used data from the American Association for People with Disabilities, along with Disability IN, the leading non-profit resource for business disability worldwide. This contained the annual Disability Equality Index, a transparent benchmarking tool that gives US businesses an objective score of their inclusion policies. This study goes even further, saying that companies with an inclusive workplace benefit from increased innovation, improved shareholder value and improved productivity, along with an enhanced reputation.
Champions of Inclusion
Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever has said "Creating a more inclusive world for the 1.3 billion people in the world with a disability is not just the right thing to do. It also makes a lot of business sense. To create real traction in this space, we need a movement in which Business takes leadership and authentic action to move the needle for this large section of humanity."
The CEO of Virgin, Richard Branson, is backing a new global campaign ‘The Valuable 500 which aims to encourage 500 international conglomerates to build fully inclusive workplaces. He said "After more than five decades as an entrepreneur and investor, I know first-hand how valuable different perspectives are in every aspect of business. I also see the value in creating a world that caters to the needs of the whole spectrum of humanity."
In the words of Ted Kennedy Jr., the Board Chair of the American Association of People with Disabilities, "Leading companies are accelerating disability inclusion as the next frontier of corporate social responsibility and mission-driven investing." And it seems as though they are generating a handsome reward for doing so.
Author: Anna Gambles, Advisory Board Member, Steps with Theera. For further information on Steps with Theera, please contact Max Simpson email@example.com
Series Editor: Christopher F. Bruton, Executive Director, Dataconsult Ltd, firstname.lastname@example.org. Dataconsults Thailand Regional Forum provides seminars and extensive documentation to update business on future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.