A Place in the Sun……Corporate Social Responsibility and towards inclusive employment of disabled people.

By Mithu Alur

My talk is titled ‘A place in the Sun…corporate social responsibility and moving towards inclusive employment for people with disabilities’. I shall begin with a few points on CSR and then move onto how disabled people can be mainstreamed into society through employment.

India is a fast growing economy and is booming with national and multinational firms. We also know that India is a land of contrasts and contradictions. We are technological giants in one way but in another there is vast poverty….the Indian land also faces social challenges like poverty, population growth, corruption, illiteracy, unemployment just to name a few. My concern in the social sector having worked in it for thirty five years is that we will not be truly globalised until we also extend the benefits of development beyond the 30% who enjoy it to more than 60% of people including the disabled who are still excluded. This is where CSR finds a niche.

Since 1991, we have witnessed a dramatic shift in the needs of business and society in general. Many companies in India have started realizing the importance of business involvement in the community. Today, Corporate Social Responsibility has become an integral part of good business practice.

What is CSR ?

No longer is it considered good enough only to be committed to one’s own profits or to one’s own shareholders….a business cannot succeed in a society which fails to establish its good health.  CSR is how companies manage their business process to produce social change. Its about how they focus not only on their own profits but also on how an overall positive impact can be made on Society in partnership with Civil Society. CSR is considered an effective tool which synergizes the efforts of Corporate and the social sector agencies towards sustainable growth and development of societal objectives at large.

CSR is a powerful way of making sustainable /competitive profit and achieving lasting value for the shareholder as well as for / stakeholders. CSR is a win-win opportunity, not just for companies and for financial investors but for society at large. The issue is one of prioritization.

Ethics and CSR are closely related. The concept of CSR is fundamental to the notion of giving back to society CSR should focus on benefiting people who are socially, culturally, economically  disadvantaged. The relevance is rooted in our understanding that businesses can and indeed ought to contribute to “equitable development in society”, thereby impacting on poverty and introducing processes both in their domain of operations and generally in society. This understanding stems from the belief that businesses have immense potential to contribute to development and nation building.  

Gandhian thinking has always influenced me which we put into practice through our work.  Gandhi who was essentially an economist of the masses believed in human dignity, upliftment of the poor and the socially oppressed and social justice.  The core of Gandhian economic thought was enrichment of human life rather than a higher standard of living with scant respect for human and social values.

Kesavulu, a Gandhian scholar writes that Gandhi wanted to liberate the modern economic philosophy from the quagmire of materialism and bring it to a higher spiritual plane. Gandhi’s efforts towards “spiritualizing economics” are truly reflected in his concept of trusteeship which was the fundamental ethical values dominating his economic ideas. Though the Gandhian concept of trusteeship does not seek to destroy any particular class, it provides us with an idea of how to narrow the class gap. At the centre of this concept is the urge to protect human dignity. One of the first steps to achieve this human dignity, justice, and equity is to eliminate the ever-present troublesome element of class struggle in the society. As Gandhi writes that as man advances from a narrow sphere of personal satisfaction to the nobler concept of the welfare of all, he marches closer towards self-realization (Source: Gandhi Marg, Vol.25, Number 4, Jan-March 2004)

His concepts of Trusteeship provides a means of transforming a society into an egalitarian one. In fact, the Gandhian theory of trusteeship applies equally to both tangible and intangible property, such as the muscular energy of the labourers and the talents of a Helen Keller (K.G. Mashurwala, Gandhi and Marx, Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad, 1951, p. 79).

Disability and Employment: Investing in human potential

Helen Keller brings us to what this Job Fair is about… looking people who may be different but are talent, looking at strengths rather than weakness of people who are differently challenged, people with disability… let me quote what a disabled person writes.

‘The best thing that I ever did was go out to work because along with a career there comes a social life as well you know, and I would dread to think of sitting at home or going to a day centre, that would kill me off, I just couldn’t do that.’

All over the world there has been a sea change to the approach to disability.  Historically people with disabilities were put away into institutions and asylums because people did not understand disabled people. They believed that they came from another planet.  This has been called a type of cultural oppression.

However it is being increasingly realized that people with disabilities can make valuable contribution to businesses and to the national economy. Studies have shown that disabled people are capable, reliable employees, who often stay in the job longer than other employees. They contribute to productivity, to staff morale and to team spirit in the workplace as a whole.

Today Acts of Parliament, reformative action has brought about a new approach to disability. This approach is called the Social approach. The new social model has taken centre stage and this new approach looks at not the dysfunctioning individual that needs fixing, fitting and curing but the environment and society that needs to change to be designed in a way that facilitates, enables people who may not walk, talk like us to be a part of us instead of apart from us.

Employers are playing a more central role than ever before in promoting opportunities for job seekers with disabilities, as well as in retaining workers who acquire a disability while in employment. Employing disabled people can enhance business profitability and dramatically improve the quality of life of individuals.  It is essential that employers consider disabled people and those employees who will become disabled, as they seek to develop a socially responsible approach to employment.

Several surveys have been completed looking at what employers perceive to be the advantages and disadvantages of employing disabled people.

“Employers felt that disabled employees show a high level of commitment and loyalty to an organisation…as a result employees are hard working, and have low sickness absence and high retention rates.” (Institute of Employment Survey 2005).

Disabled people were rated the same as or better than non-disabled co-workers on punctuality; attendance; work quality; task consistency; overall proficiency, with slightly lower scores on work speed.

A study conducted on behalf of Telstra Australia in 1999 found that:

  • People with a disability worked on average 4.1 years in a call centre, compared to 3.2 years for people without a disability.
  • Over a 15-month period, people with a disability had 11.8 days absent, compared to people without a disability who had 19.24 days absent.
  • There were no significant differences when comparing people with a disability to people without a disability in the areas of performance, productivity and sales.

Other research shows that:

  • Over 90% of employers who had recently employed a person with a disability said they would be happy to continue employing people with a disability.
  • 78% of employers described the match between their employee with a disability and the job as ‘good.’

The leading edge of thinking and practice is steadily shifting beyond legal obligation and well-meaning philanthropy, towards a solutions-focused culture which shifts the emphasis from the person’s disability to the changes a business can make easily to enable that person to contribute their skills and productivity.  The shift is from a focus on cost and dysfunction to an emphasis on investment in human potential.

A Different Approach: how to operationalise policy

Employing disabled managers and staff signals to existing and potential staff that the company is a caring company’ which treats people fairly.

In India with the PWD Act 1995 in action from November ’96, disability is now much higher on many corporate agendas.  Many are looking at disability for the first time and wondering what their role is. 

As far as multiply disabled people are concerned, they have been described succinctly as “an intelligent mind in a disobedient body” (which the Spastics Society or ADAPT JOBS is working with). We find that the main reason for not finding too many in the labour force is because education of the multiply disabled person was earlier neglected.  Having stemmed this malaise let us see how we can give some of these talented people an opportunity through Inclusive Employment.  I am going to look at two issues – Policy Formulation and Policy Implementation.

Policy Formulation

First of all we need a policy without ambiguity. Effective engagement of vulnerable groups requires a clear policy, statement and commitment on the part of the company. Just as we have done in education policy… It is key therefore for a Company to have a clear cut CSR policy which also includes employing multiply disabled people.

This I have called COPP… a Code of Policy and Practice. This is like the Mission Statement of the Company (Details of this are in the Booklet provided).

Policy Implementation:

Policy without implementation and fiscal allocation is policy without teeth or without a mechanism to operationalise. To implement the Corporate Policy, it will be important to address key issues which are barriers.

Key Issues 1:

Accessibility issue: Accessible Workspaces: Removing Physical Barriers:

A relatively new term called Universal Design that encourages accessibility to people with disabilities is being used. Universal Design grew out of the recognition by architects that they needed to design the built environment so that it would be usable by all people, regardless of age or ability.

To enable the company in giving equal opportunities, access, has to address Universal Design.  For e.g. people with mobility problems need ramps, toilets with bars and wheelchair access.  People with speech problems need a voice synthesizer to communicate, people with hearing problem need signage, people with visual problem need Braille symbols and auditory signals in lifts. All common areas, such as the foyer, reception, canteen, library should be accessible. All this is now becoming universal in other countries.

Key Issue 2:  Accessible Transportation:

Providing transport becomes a key need in providing employment. This is because of the difficulty of travelling on buses: ramps not working, drivers refusing to use them, buses not close enough to the kerb, wheelchair spaces taken up by other people, buses pulling away before people were in place, experiencing problems with other passengers.

What I have suggested and have written up the Code of Practice to Companies to help make workplace accessible to disabled employees by providing transportation to and from the workplace. The Company can hire a private car/taxi/bus for them. Regular plying contract buses running on the routes can be used. This model is based on the successful partnership of the SSI with B.E.S.T. Mumbai wherein the BEST buses pick up and drop the children studying in the Bandra Centre of the SSI. This unique model has 2 exclusive buses plying from Borivli to Bandra and Mulund to Bandra carrying the children to and from their residence to the school.

A car pool system can be devised wherein employees with private transport can offer to pick and drop their disabled colleagues and they can contribute towards the fuel costs.  The company could address transport issues through an Access Fund.

Key Issue 3:  Disability Coordinator:

In our experience, what is needed is a continuum of support after placing the disabled person into the Job. A Disability Coordinator could be in place to whom all people who are disabled or who can become disabled at work go to. This could be a person who is a professional or could also be a disabled person doing this job of coordination with various Departments. Use of external support agencies can be invaluable. We have found that we need to establish a relationship with an NGO and the Company willing to employ a person. 

Key Issue 4:  Work-life Balance :

Retention needs adjustment to the job environment or modification of the job itself, training and retraining. Outsourcing of specific activities to disabled groups/persons could be a model.  Building in the opportunity for individuals to work from home is another one. To ensure retention, its important to be flexible…  Flexible hours to enable keeping medical appointments. Health and safety, are support systems which all employees need not just disabled.

Key Issue 5:  On the Job Training :

On the Job Training is vital. There are many candidates who have done a great deal of work, despite huge obstacles, however, they need to be trained and shaped to the requirements of a job.  We do this even with normal people…so why not with disabled people?

Key Issue 6: Orientation and Preparation of Personnel:

Inclusive Employment will not be successful unless some preparation is    done. Without preparation it is called main dumping. Often disabled people are taken in but made to just sit and not given any jobs. Out of sheer boredom they leave.

To make your policy effective it is important that all employees, disabled and non-disabled are aware of the policy, understand it, and know what they have to do to make it work. Otherwise the policy is just a piece of paper!

Getting the right staff in the right positions to manage a process of engagement are crucial to the success of the process. Employees should be given programmes with an effective orientation. All department (HRD, Finance, Research and Development, Administration, etc) should have clear-cut objectives to support people with disabilities.

Encourage imaginative and innovative management responses. Successful engagement strategies often require individuals creating imaginative solutions to very complex problem.


Moving to the last section of my talk. What was the dream Gandhiji had of an independent India? He had said, “I will work for an India where the poorest of the poor feel that this country and this nation belongs to them and that they have a major role in its construction. An India where there is no higher class or lower class among all people. An India where all communities live in friendship and harmony. An India where women have the same rights as men.” He had also said, ” the Swaraj I dream of is a Swaraj of poor people. I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that Swaraj cannot be complete till the poorest have a guarantee of being provided with the basic necessities of life”. I have no hesitation to say that in all these statements, Gandhiji included all the disadvantaged and marginalized groups including the disabled. I find the present Government extremely inclusive of disabled people.

We have a large proportion of young people in our population. We will need to invest in their education and health so that their future prospects are bright. By doing so, our population will become our biggest asset.

The Prime Minister recently said “It is my belief that India’s future is extremely bright and that this future is indeed, possible. In order to achieve this, we need to focus on achieving rapid economic growth and on ensuring social justice.

The true test of development is the number of people who have secured employment and the number of families who have prospered as a result. As long as there is widespread unemployment in the country, we cannot claim that we are truly independent. It is with this goal in mind that Smt. Indira Gandhi had given the nation the goal of ‘Garibi Hatao’. Today, if we need to remove poverty, we need to create employment “Rozgar Badhao”. In order to ensure that a minimum level of employment is available to everyone in rural areas, it is necessary to have an employment guarantee.

It is necessary for every section of society to be literate and educated so that they can take advantage of our growth processes. In order to achieve these goals, resources shall not be a constraint. Along with primary education, we also need to pay attention to higher education. We are also committed to providing education to disabled children as well.

Altruism or humanitarianism involves possible personal or organizational sacrifice. In encouraging businesses to embrace and practice CSR we will be creating an enabling environment of equitable (partnership between civil society and business.

A Chinese Proverb says that  ‘The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones’ It may take a long time … maybe a long journey but I am reminded of a stone cutter;

Have you ever watched a stonecutter at work? He will hammer away at a rock for perhaps a 100 times without a crack showing in it. Then, on the 101st blow, it will split in two. It is not that blow alone which accomplished the result, but the 100 others that went before as well. 

All I am asking for is to join us in this journey and be one of the hundred in hammering away … to ensure a  place in the sun for our disabled colleagues. In the overall perspective we hope to create a caring company that cares for people who the World Bank has described as poorest of the poor and help in nation building.

“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”

                                                                             – Mahatma Gandhi

Together we can try to do this, alter the course of history and build a better more carrying India… India that thinks of her under privileged, the needy the helpless the disadvantaged.

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