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28 Nov 2023
BY Lauren Salt AND Lara Keil

Navigating disability inclusion in the workplace

South Africa commemorates National Disability Rights Awareness Month between 3 November and 3 December every year. According to the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Disability Rights Awareness Month presents “an opportunity for all of us to remove these barriers and to improve the quality of life of people with disabilities through concrete action.”

The Department of Statistics’ Quarterly Labour Force Survey, published in June 2023, provides that South Africa’s official unemployment rate increased to 32.9% in the first quarter of 2023. Unemployment disproportionately affects persons with disabilities and it is estimated that eight out of ten persons with disabilities are unemployed.

What does this mean for employers?

An employer has a general obligation to take steps to promote equal opportunity in the workplace through the elimination of unfair discrimination in any employment policy or practice. This provision is encapsulated in section 5 of the Employment Equity Act, 1998 (“EEA”), which, amongst other things, provides for the achievement of equity in the workplace.

To achieve equity in the workplace, section 13(1) provides that designated employers must implement affirmative action measures for people from designated groups. In this regard, affirmative action measures are defined in section 15 of EEA as “measures designed to ensure that suitably qualified people from designated groups have equal employment opportunities and are equitably represented in all occupational levels in the workforce of a designated employer.” Section 15(2)(c) of the EEA further provides that a designated employer’s affirmative action measures must include, amongst other things, making reasonable accommodation for people from designated groups.

An employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodation may arise as a result of an employee’s voluntary disclosure of a disability-related accommodation or where such a need is reasonably self-evident to the employer. Reasonable accommodation is defined in the EEA as “any modification or adjustment to a job or to the working environment that will enable a person from a designated group to have access to or participate or advance in employment”.

In this regard, item 6.9 of the Code of Good Practice on Employment of Persons with Disabilities (“Disability Code”) provides that reasonable accommodation includes, but is not limited to:

  • adapting existing facilities to make them accessible;
  • adapting existing equipment or acquiring new equipment including computer hardware and software;
  • reorganising workstations;
  • changing training and assessment materials and systems;
  • restructuring jobs so that non-essential functions are re-assigned;

adjusting working conditions, including working time and leave; and

  • providing specialised supervision, training and support in the workplace.

The 4th Industrial Revolution marks an era where people are using smart, connected and converged cyber, physical and biological systems and with this, there are more options available to employers to promote and support disability-related inclusivity in the workplace. These options include:

  1. Virtual and augmented-reality technology which enables people to step inside virtual worlds by using 3D-generated images to immerse users into simulated environments. The simulated environment is designed to make users feel like they are physically present in that space. The environment is accessed through the use of virtual reality headsets or glasses and users can engage in the environment using gaze control technology or hand controllers, such as virtual reality gloves; and
  2. Assistive robotics which provides sensory, perception and physical abilities to the physically disabled. Advances in the field of assistive robotics have empowered people with disabilities to increase their independence and improve their overall quality of life. Currently, there are robots for people with visual impairments, telepresence robots for people with physical impairments and social robots for people with cognitive impairments.

The use of telepresence robots in the physical workplace provides an opportunity for people with physical disabilities, who would otherwise not be able to be in the workplace at all, to be “physically” present in the workplace and participate actively in the physical workplace. Employees can simply use a mouse, iPad, or gaze-controlled remote to control the robots from anywhere.

The success of telepresence in the workplace can be seen in its use at the DAWN (Diverse Avatar Working Network) Café in Japan. The unique DAWN concept was first piloted with a series of pop-up cafes in 2018. DAWN’s robot servers and barristers are operated by employees whose disabilities preclude them from leaving their homes, and in many instances, leaving their beds. Whilst at the moment, interventions such as assistive robotics come with a hefty price tag, as these technologies become more mainstream, the cost of acquiring and implementing them is likely to decrease significantly.

Important insights for employers

During Disability Rights Awareness Month, employers should challenge themselves to think out of the box regarding disability-related inclusion. Employers should also be cognisant of the manner in which they go about ensuring that their workplaces are accessible and accommodating of those with disabilities. Employers should:

  • Be proactive: Employers should proactively familiarise themselves with reasonable accommodation principles and should be prepared to consider and implement accommodations at various stages of the employment relationship; and
  • Involve employees in accommodation: Employers should include employees with disabilities in the accommodation process. Employees with disabilities should be treated as the primary partner in this process.

Disability Rights Awareness Month serves as a reminder to employers of their obligations towards persons with disabilities and acts as a prompt to consider the evolution of the world of work and whether their existing policies and procedures are fit for purpose.


Lauren Salt

Employment | Executive

Lara Keil

Employment | Trainee Associate