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OPINION: Being an invisible employee in the work place

12 July 2017

Mncedisi Mdunyelwa

By Mncedisi Mdunyelwa

During the past two decades, the situation of professionals with disabilities has changed. We have expanded our career aspirations. As blind people, for example, we are no longer confined to basket making, switchboard operating, music or law. We have seen the integration of people with visual impairment into different fields, such as social work, physiotherapy, education, politics, managerial positions, etc. Integration, however, does not necessarily mean acceptance and equality nor does it mean that the stress and frustration created by prejudice and attitude has been resolved.

The world of business today is very different from the world of business three decades ago. Advances in technology plus the evolving work in this country have contributed to the business environment of the 21st century. The development of inclusive policy and legislative frameworks has led to people with disabilities participation in the employment sector and changes in many aspects of South African life. It is a notable fact that there are some issues that continue to plague blind and partially sighted people as  they attempt to progress in the professional fields.

Noted is that people with disabilities constitute less than 2% of the total labour force. Most people with disabilities remain in the lower levels of employment for more than two decades. One of the difficulties is that in most cases blind people are restricted to play meaningful leadership roles and even if they are employed at managerial level sighted people should make decisions on their behalf. Many of us, especially people with visual impairment, realise that number of restrictive environment and disabling barriers restrict us from securing an equivalent lifestyle to non-disabled people. To me to be disabled persons means to be discriminated against or someone else takes decisions without your consent.

Important to note is that social exclusion is often the hardest to overcome. Negative stereotypes are commonly attached to disability. The consequences are particularly severe for visually impaired people who are subject to social, cultural, economic, political disadvantages due to inability to see. In my years of activism in the disability movement, I realised that seeking equal employment opportunities is difficult for people with visual impairment. If you are fortunate to get employment, it will be either under-employment or experience subtle discrimination. We are thankful for the existing legislation and policies for provision of reasonable accommodation, but what must be really worked upon is attitude towards disability.

The critical question is employers willing to hire persons with disabilities because one must comply with the law and meet the required employment equity targets? Many times you find employers wanting people with disabilities to fill some positions. However, they will specify that they do not want blind people. It is important at this point to reflect on one of the interesting meeting our section held with another section in the department. About three quarter of the meeting the visually impaired colleague and I were addressed as if we are from an NGO of the disabled people and not part of the department as employees and as managers. Further, non-disabled facilitators in meetings will make sure that they only give a disabled person on items they think pertains to disability only. It is forgotten that our competencies are not always disability.

Our opinions as professionals with disabilities, even on the subject of disability are not generally rewarded with the same validity as the opinions of non-disabled professionals, particularly medical experts. I do not of course dispute that they may be dealing with facts. The question is rather one of whether these facts can be adequately interpreted from a strictly non-disabled person point of view. Are these facts simply processed in such a way that there is necessarily built upon them an image of the disabled person as inadequate?

There is much that needs to change so that we can fully participate and be productive in the work place, and much about support we get or do not get needs rethinking. Like many visually impaired people, I have no doubt that it is not my blindness that keeps me away from being recognised with my capabilities, but it is the attitude of others towards my disability. The key to ensure integration and inclusion of visually impaired persons in the work place is to listen to visually impaired people and to take full account of their views in making decisions as well as tackling negative attitudes.

We need to build up a picture of what it is like to be a person with a visual impairment in a world run by non-disabled people. This involves treating opinions and experiences of visually impaired people as valid and important; more than this, they must be nurtured and given an overriding significance. Our experiences must be expressed in our words and integrated in the consciousness of mainstream society.