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  • Writer's pictureAjmal Samuel

Championing disability inclusion in the workplace

While corporate diversity has long been in the spotlight, there is still a marked lack of representation of persons with disability in the workplace. The statistics say it all: according to the International Labour Organization, people with disabilities make up around 15 percent of the world’s population – and 4 in 5 are of working age. Yet, the United Nations states that in most developed countries, the official unemployment rate for those with disabilities is at least twice that for those without.

At Bloomberg, fostering a diverse and inclusive culture is critical, and we fully recognize the value that people with disabilities can bring to the organization. Our commitment to increasing disability representation is evident through a wide range of initiatives – including facilitating open and candid conversations. In this vein, we recently hosted a virtual panel discussion on disability inclusion, “Looking Beyond the Label: Embracing & Valuing Disability”. The conversation was moderated by James Richard Barrett, the co-lead of the Abilities Community (B-ABLE) in Bloomberg’s Hong Kong office, and featured high achievers who live and work with a disability.

To kick off the event, keynote speaker Hitesh Ramchandani shared an inspiring account of what it was like growing up with cerebral palsy, and how he overcame various challenges – including being bullied at school – to eventually become a successful author and Paralympian footballer. He then highlighted the importance of self-acceptance. “Until you accept yourself, how will you accept others? If you treat yourself well, you will do the same to everyone else,” he said. “Inclusion starts with you.”

Thereafter, Suzanne Gauron, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, and Ajmal Samuel, an entrepreneur and Paralympian, went on to share their views on what it takes for people with disabilities to succeed in the workplace, as well as how companies can improve their disability inclusion practices.

The importance of hard work and persistence

For Samuel, a paraplegic who has been wheelchair-bound ever since experiencing an accident in the army 33 years ago, meritocracy is of utmost importance. “As a disabled person, society gives you special privileges that you might take for granted. However, organizations should still hire on merit, so disabled people need to work hard to get to where they want to be,” he shared. “Overcoming your problems and persevering – these are the very things that define a person.”

This philosophy  has enabled him to get to where he is today. After his accident, he was forced to leave the army. “For five or six years, I did not know what to do. However, I realized I had to embrace what happened and fully utilize the opportunities that came my way,” he recalled. He eventually went on to launch OCTO3 Group Holdings Limited, an ICT and financial technology solutions provider headquartered in Hong Kong. In addition, he is now an avid sportsman who has participated in triathlons, marathons and regattas around the globe.

His views were echoed by Gauron, formerly a managing director in the Alternative Investments & Manager Selection Group at Goldman Sachs in New York. Today, she serves on the board of Lime Connect, a non-profit organization that helps prepare high-potential university students with disabilities for their future careers. “The only person who lives your experience is you,” said Gauron, who was diagnosed with a degenerative disease as a child. “It’s not about whether other people think you’re disabled – it’s about what you can do to push yourself.”

Implementing lasting change in the workplace

Samuel noted that the employment landscape has, on the whole, become more inclusive over the years. “Organizations are now more accepting of people with disabilities. Likewise, those with disabilities are now more confident about getting a job,” he observed.

Yet, for people with disabilities to be able to truly thrive in the workplace, companies need to normalize the hiring of such candidates. “The hiring manager often thinks that the onus is on the candidate to fit into the company’s culture, but the responsibility lies on both sides,” said Samuel. “The organization also has to ensure that it has the sensitivity and understanding to integrate people with disabilities. It’s a two-way street.”

Integration can be achieved in several ways, such as mandatory employee training programs that focus on disability inclusion. “There are a lot of questions people want to ask without sounding insensitive or uninformed,” Gauron said. She also suggested forging partnerships with disability organizations to diversify the hiring process and strengthen the recruitment pipeline.

Gauron also underscored the importance of flexibility when evaluating employee performance. “Personally, as a disabled person, I have always gravitated towards jobs where you can quantify what your contribution is – for instance, by the number of deals you close,” she shared. However, she also recognized that many roles today are measured by more qualitative metrics, such as teamwork. “It’s all very positive, but it also allows for bias,” she noted. As such, it is imperative that companies develop evaluation processes that enable disabled employees to demonstrate their strengths and realize their full potential.

Perhaps most importantly, companies need to look beyond the label and treat each candidate as an individual. “Everyone’s story is different, so the only way you can properly understand others is to listen,” Gauron reflected. “You might have two people with the same disability, but who want to be seen and heard in different ways. At the end of the day, it comes down to personality as much as disability.” Clearly, it is crucial that companies create a truly inclusive environment where all employees, disabled or otherwise, are not afraid to bring their whole selves to work; a culture that genuinely celebrates the many different facets of humanity.

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