24 July 2009 - Managing organisational change, particularly related to disability equity, is notoriously difficult and slow due to misconceptions and social stigmas that are still attached to people with disabilities.
“Trying to address an entrenched mindset with regards to people with disabilities is a monumental undertaking but if addressed correctly can be very successful and rewarding,” says Beth Cook, MD of disability equity consultancy Progression.
This is why the completion of a three-year programme at the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is so significant – not only to Progression, but especially to the department.
“GDARD is regarded as the best-performing department compared to other Gauteng Provincial Government departments in this regard,” says Kgari Manotwane, Chief Director of Transformation at the department.
The successful implementation of the department's Disability Equity Plan has exceeded Government's target of 2% by permanently employing 18 people with disabilities, representing 2.13% of staff. This achievement is exceptional when seen in context of the bigger public service picture.
According to a January 2008 study by the Public Service Commission (PSC), government was lagging behind the Cabinet-endorsed target of 2% public service disability equity by 2010, achieving only 0,2% by October 2007.
Many of the PSC's recommendations focused on education, awareness and best practices, which should all be encompassed in an approved employment equity plan.
“That really is the key to achieving your disability equity targets, because then the entire organisation works together to support that vision,” says Cook. “And that is what has been so key to this project: that we have been allowed to take the process from strategy development, right through the entire cycle to final implementation.”
Manotwane concurs, saying that she is grateful for the guidance provided by Progression.
“If you are serious about empowering and employing people with disabilities and lack the know-how, it pays to have experts in the field of disability mainstreaming guide you through the process. The impact has been increased awareness and understanding of broader disability issues, better understanding and correct interpretation of relevant legislation,” she says.
She adds that the department's staff members are now also more sensitive and supportive of people with disabilities, to the extent of having introduced a number of far-reaching initiatives.
In addition to physical accessibility measures, such as ramps and elevators, the department has also made sign language and braille interpretation services available in areas where they are needed.
“I’m proud to say that GDARD is a disability friendly employer and supports both economic and social empowerment initiatives for people with disabilities,” says Manotwane.
Cook says the success of the programme and GDARD's ability to implement it is due to Progression’s unique model and the department’s systematic approach that had a clear end-goal.
“When working with organisations such as GDARD, we take an all-encompassing view of the organisation, its policies, physical attributes and then measure those against accepted practices,” she says.
Manotwane says this was seen in action through the streamlining of processes to speed up the employment and acceptance of people with disabilities in the workplace.
“We ensured that disability friendly policies were developed, conducted a workplace environmental audit, and did ergonomic assessments for staff with disabilities to ensure that our facilities accommodated the needs of people with disabilities,” she explains.
The far-reaching education and awareness activities, for example, included encouraging staff to disclose their disability status, after which they received free assessments and had their needs met wherever possible.
“Our staff is now more sensitive, receptive and supportive of people with disabilities, both internally and externally,” says Manotwane. “Departmental reporting has also improved by including disaggregated information on how people with disabilities receive support and benefits – something which had not been done in the past.”
She adds that the entire process has been incredibly uplifting and added a new dimension to her department's attitude to people with disabilities.
“One of the most powerful lessons learnt was that accommodating the needs of people with disabilities is not a liability, but best practice in disability mainstreaming,” she says.
Cook adds that one of the most effective means to remove all barriers – physical and otherwise – is an environmental audit of the workplace.
“We not only assess factors such as access into and inside buildings, but also take the workspace into consideration to ensure that they are comfortably accommodated,” says Cook.
Manotwane says this contributes to the general well-being of all staff as they are able to witness the positive changes, and they realise that people with disabilities are as competent and capable as any other staff members.
“I feel like employing 100 more people with disabilities because I have been guided and taught how,” she effuses.