Equality at work: Tackling the challenges of disability

The challenge for enhancing the employability of people with disabilities is significant. But according to a new ILO global report on discrimination in the world of work, there is growing evidence that people with disabilities are not only more productive, they may actually be more skilled in certain types of jobs than non-disabled people.

Press release | 09 May 2007

The challenge for enhancing the employability of people with disabilities is significant. But according to a new ILO global report on discrimination in the world of work (Note 1), there is growing evidence that people with disabilities are not only more productive, they may actually be more skilled in certain types of jobs than non-disabled people. The proof can be found in the cash management department of one of Sri Lanka's biggest banks, where millions of rupees are counted and sorted every day by people who can neither speak nor hear.

ATHURUGIRIYA, Sri Lanka (ILO Online) – Ms. Jayamali Fernando is a pioneer. The 41 year old woman from the city of Athurugiriya in Sri Lanka is one of the best employees in the cash counting department at the head office of Sampath Bank in Colombo.

Ms. Fernando also cannot speak or hear. She is one of seven hearing and speech impaired people hired by Sampath Bank in a unique partnership set up by the bank, the country's employer's organization, and the ILO.

According to the ILO global report Equality at work: Tackling the challenges, around 650 million people, one out of every 10 people on the planet, live with a disability, either physical or mental. The new report, to be published on 10 May and discussed at this year's International Labour Conference which begins in late May provides a global report card on progress in addressing many forms of discrimination over the past four years.

"In a developing country like Sri Lanka, economic underdevelopment and massive unemployment mean that jobs are scarce, and the risk of discrimination is significant. Although there is a large body of labour laws and legal safeguards in place to prevent abuses in Sri Lanka's private sector, disabled people are particularly vulnerable", says Manuela Tomei, an ILO specialist on discrimination issues.

The Employer Network on Disability was created, with the help of the ILO, to give disabled people a chance to become productive workers. The Network's prime mover is the Employer's Federation of Ceylon (EFC), Sri Lanka's principal employers' organization. Founded in 1929, the EFC represents 500 employers in sectors ranging from manufacturing to services, from banking to import/export firms to sales and marketing businesses.

Back in 1999, with assistance from the ILO, the EFC started the Network, which connects organizations that help disabled people with the business community, by enhancing employment opportunities as well as helping disabled people get access to vocational training.

The EFC's Meghamali Aluvihare says it began with an awareness raising program to help dispel preconceptions about workers with disabilities. The EFC also created a database, matching disabled workers with the businesses that needed them. With help from the ILO, the EFC set up a job fair connecting disabled people with local employers, including Sampath Bank, one of Sri Lanka's leading banks.

"Sampath Bank has a strong commitment to developing its people, and has made a major investment in training and human resources", says the Ms. Aluvihare, making it an ideal company for hiring disabled people.

The bank hired seven speech and hearing impaired people who attended the job fair set up by the EFC. The bank's managers thought they had just the right opportunity for the disabled workers.

The Central Cash Department at the bank's head office in Colombo is where all of the bank's cash is collected and categorized. Every day, millions of rupees are sorted, packed, counterfeit notes detected, and transported out. It is a job that involves minimal interaction with the rest of the bank's operations, but requires a high degree of honesty, integrity, and attention to detail.

For every banker, cash handling is a core skill, and the seven speech and hearing impaired people the bank hired had to be trained to do the job. The trainers had to learn sign language to communicate with the new workers, and even the bank officer in charge of the department was given special training to communicate with his new team of disabled workers.

The results have far exceeded expectations, especially of those who thought it could never work. All seven of the hearing and speech impaired workers have so successfully integrated into the department they are no longer considered disabled.

According to the department's manager, the disabled workers' level of productivity and efficiency has been rated as much as three times as high as other people working in the same division, and what's more, the manager says they are not only punctual, but that none of the disabled workers has ever claimed a single day of sick leave … and, most importantly for the operation of the cash department, there has never been a single complaint of dishonest or suspicious conduct in all the years of this initiative.

One of the biggest surprises, according to the department's manager, was the hearing and speech impaired workers showed a special, unexpected talent: because of their highly attuned vision and superior tactile skills, they are particularly good at detecting counterfeit notes.

Over the last years, the EFC has taken further steps to bring more of these special workers into productive jobs. Over the years, the EFC has held five job fairs, at which over 250 people with disabilities have gotten jobs in the private sector. Meanwhile, the EFC is codifying what it has learning, including launching a "Code for Managing Disability Issues in the Workplace" for employers.

Hiring people with disabilities makes good business sense as well

"The Sampath Bank story isn't an isolated case. People with disabilities are not only among the most productive of workers, hiring them makes good business sense as well", says Ms. Tomei.

The new global report cites research that reveals some provocative results.

Two thirds of Australian employers surveyed who hired disabled people said the cost of accommodating the workplace for them was neutral, as only 4 per cent of disabled people of working age require additional adjustments in the workplace. Many companies actually reduced costs by hiring disabled workers. The Australian survey found the average recruitment cost of employee with a disability is 13 per cent below the cost of recruiting an employee without a disability.

The ILO global report also cites long term studies conducted by DuPont, showing that disabled employees perform equally or better compared to their non-disabled colleagues.

For Ms. Fernando, her disability is no longer an issue at work. She is not "deaf and dumb" but simply another valued, productive member of Sampath Bank's cash management team. And just like every other employee, Ms. Fernando benefits from the bank's strong culture of learning, taking advantage of training opportunities and building her skills in the job she loves, and excels at.

Note 1 - Equality at work: Tackling the challenges, Global Report under the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, International Labour Conference, 96th Session 2007, International Labour Office, Geneva. ISBN 978-92-2-118130-9, ISSN 0074-6681.