Building Sustainable Cities

Disability inclusive workplaces help employers tap under-utilised talents

Despite the initial toll of Covid-19 on the labour market, experts believe incentives and support programmes can help employers see the business value in hiring people with disabilities

UOB Scan Hub has redesigned its job roles and workspaces to be disability inclusive
Hiring employees with disabilities has enriched its work culture, says UOB. At UOB Scan Hub, where documents are digitised and archived, workers with disabilities account for over 35 per cent of the team. PHOTO: UOB

More employers are beginning to realise that the disable does not mean unable. Indeed, say experts, hiring them is advisable.

With more government incentives encouraging employers to tap the under-utilised workforce of individuals with disabilities, organisations from a wider range of industries now see greater value from having disability-inclusive workplaces.

"Employment is an important avenue for integration and gives people, including people with disabilities, a sense of identity, purpose and social connectedness," says Mr Tan Eng Tat, director of Employment and Employability at government-linked agency SG Enable.

"Over the years, we have seen an increase in the number of organisations keen on disability inclusion."

Each successive edition of the five Enabling Employers Awards, a biennial event held since 2011, has seen more employers qualifying. It was renamed the Enabling Mark Awards this year, with the launch of national-level accreditation to benchmark employers for their inclusive hiring practices.

A total of 88 organisations were accredited. They are from a mix of multinational and small and medium-sized enterprises from sectors such as F&B, financial services, hospitality, logistics and transport.

The pandemic effect

There were initial concerns that the Covid-19 pandemic could set back years of gradual progress for employees with disabilities.

SG Enable's Mr Tan notes: "Some employers may have negative perceptions about employees with disabilities, such as them being less productive. They may also think that supporting an employee with disabilities would require too much money and effort."

Mr Shaun Tan, co-founder of Inclus, a social enterprise serving people with disabilities and employers seeking to be disability-inclusive, says that before the pandemic, most jobs for differently abled individuals were in F&B, retail and hospitality. These sectors had long grappled with manpower shortages and tightened foreign worker quotas.

But those jobs also tended to be "less mission critical", required fewer qualifications, and thus paid less, so job seekers with disabilities were at times under-employed.

When the pandemic struck, those very sectors were hardest hit by travel and social restrictions. Consequently, many businesses hiring workers with disabilities had to trim operations and pare down manpower, says Mr Tan.

Supporting workers with disabilities

Job placements fell as a result of the pandemic, said SPD, a Singapore-based charity serving people with disabilities, in its latest annual report. But the good news is that the charity has found fresh opportunities in emerging industries, including urban farming.

Similarly, Inclus' Mr Tan has noticed an uptick in labour demand from sectors such as logistics, IT and healthcare.

"Disability employment does move with market trends so, as demand grows for cybersecurity, healthcare and administrative workers, we have found opportunities to place people with disabilities in such roles," he says.

The unemployment rate of working-age PWD residents with disabilities is at 11.7 per cent - above Singapore's current resident unemployment rate of 3.5 per cent.

To nudge employers to consider hiring from this under-tapped local talent pool, the government has enhanced incentives in the wake of the pandemic. This is on top of training and job redesign grants under the government's Open Door Programme.

The Manpower Ministry (MOM) said its Jobs Growth Initiative (JGI), launched in September 2020, has supported the hiring of more than 1,600 employees with disabilities as at February.

The JGI gives eligible employers wage support of up to 50 per cent of the first $6,000 of gross monthly income for new hires with disabilities. It has been extended till March next year.

Employers of Singaporeans with disabilities earning less than $4,000 a month also receive the Enabling Employment Credit wage offset.

The combination of market demand and incentives has helped hold the employment rate among working-age residents with disabilities steady at 29 per cent, according to an April update from MOM.

Boon for businesses

Along with the pandemic-induced push to diversify recruitment sources, there is growing evidence that disability inclusion helps employers.

A study of 140 US companies by professional services firm Accenture found that the 45 firms that excelled in disability employment and inclusion reaped 28 per cent higher revenue than their peers over a four-year period.

Other gains were from increased innovation, improved shareholder value, higher productivity and better access to suppliers and customers.

For UOB, hiring individuals with disabilities has enriched its work culture. They account for over 35 per cent of employees at UOB Scan Hub, where documents are digitised and archived.

"Our managers at UOB Scan Hub have learnt to build up their people management skills and refine their approach to managing diversity in their teams," says Ms Susan Hwee, UOB head of group technology and operations.

"Our colleagues with disabilities have consistently displayed a high level of productivity and the turnover rate at UOB Scan Hub has remained low over the years," she adds.

Several have since advanced to roles with more responsibility.

Notes Accenture in its study: "Empowered companies are not merely compliant or acting out of perceived obligation. They are excitedly embracing the advantages that come with employing more creative, industrious and well-rounded people."

Inclus' Mr Tan sees this in his clients, who are willing to pay recruitment and job support fees - on par with those charged by executive search firms - for suitable job seekers with disabilities.

"With our model, the employer has skin in the game," says Mr Tan. "They are less likely to fire when the going gets rough, as they are invested in harvesting value from the hiring relationship."

"In the longer term, we don't want tokenism or organisations that see providing jobs as a form of charity, because that's not sustainable nor helpful to people with disabilities."

Playing to strengths at work

One company that is championing inclusive workplaces is UOB, which received the highest Enabling Mark (Platinum) accolade this year.

In 2013, the bank was prompted to explore alternative sources of workers when it faced a manpower crunch after setting up UOB Scan Hub.

"We discovered that persons with autism tend to have a sharp eye for detail, high levels of concentration and the ability to work methodically, making them uniquely suited for the job roles at UOB Scan Hub," says Ms Susan Hwee, UOB's head of group technology and operations.

Working with the Autism Resource Centre and SPD, UOB Scan Hub refined its interview processes, job scope and workspaces to integrate people with autism and deaf persons into its team.

For instance, candidates are guided to create slides to introduce themselves to hiring managers. Deaf candidates are also provided with visual tools to ensure clearer dialogue during job interviews.

A methodical workflow dictates the design of its office, which also has more visual aids - TV screens, glass boards, and colour-coded signs - than the average workspace.

Today, more than 35 per cent of UOB Scan Hub's team are persons with disabilities.

This is the 14th of a 15-part series in collaboration with

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