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Firms need not shy away from publicising their disabled hires. Here’s how to do it responsibly

I am heartened to note that in recent years, more companies are willing to hire disabled people like myself.

As a disabled person soon to enter the workforce, the author does not begrudge companies the opportunity to gain some positive publicity from their disability inclusion initiatives.

As a disabled person soon to enter the workforce, the author does not begrudge companies the opportunity to gain some positive publicity from their disability inclusion initiatives.

I am heartened to note that in recent years, more companies are willing to hire disabled people like myself.

Thanks to impactful work by SG Enable and other social service organisations advocating for disability employment, there is greater awareness in the corporate world that the disabled are a valuable talent pool to be tapped.

Government support such as subsidies for assistive technology devices has also helped convince more employers to take the first step in giving the disabled a chance to prove themselves in the working world.

The increasing interest in hiring the disabled can be seen from the rise in membership of the Singapore Business Network on Disability.

It is made up of businesses across various industries which share “expertise, experience, networks and resources to help advance the equitable inclusion of persons with disabilities”.

It started in 2015 with only eight organisations, but has since grown to include 19 members.

However, when an organisation hires someone with a disability, it is still a noteworthy event because of its relative rarity.

Chances are that the organisation will want to announce the new hire to internal and external audiences, with the aim of burnishing its reputation as an inclusive employer.

As a disabled person soon to enter the workforce, I do not begrudge companies the opportunity to gain some positive publicity from their disability inclusion initiatives.

Being trained in communications, I understand that an important part of public relations (PR) is telling the feel-good stories of the people behind the stiff, corporate image of a company.

So if a company wants to feature their disabled employees in their publicity materials, I think it is par for the course. After all, responsible and inclusive employers deserve to be recognised.

And as a disabled employee, I would be glad to be featured because I would view it as an opportunity to give back to the organisation that gave me a shot to succeed in my career and in life.

But there are some who oppose businesses profiling their disabled employees. They feel that it is tokenistic and exploitative to turn disabled employees into poster children for a cheap PR stunt. Some fear that the disabled will be reduced to figures of “inspiration porn”.

I do not agree with these concerns and in fact think that they are counterproductive to the overall effort to push for greater inclusivity.

Employers may avoid hiring any disabled people to protect their own reputation if they see other companies’ inclusive hiring policy announcements drawing flak.

In this way, criticising organisations that publicise their inclusive hires runs the risk of undoing the progress made in encouraging more employers to hire disabled workers.

At the same time, there are ways that businesses can minimise the chances of such criticisms while still reaping the benefits of publicising their inclusive employment practices.

Based on my experiences both as a disabled person and someone in the PR field, I would like to offer these pointers.

First, consult the disabled employee you would like to feature. Make sure he is willing to be featured, and work with him on the design and content of the collateral. This is important to ensure that he is comfortable with the way he is portrayed.

As a disabled employee, I would appreciate that the company values my feelings and collaborates with me to make sure the collateral is to the liking of both parties.

Putting on my PR hat, I would ask the employee questions like: How would you like us to describe your disability? How do you want the photo to be taken?

With the employee given control over how he is presented to the public, the company has moral ground to stand on if confronted with accusations of exploitation.

In the material, I would also include a quote from the employee himself, in response to prompts such as: Why did you join our company? What would you like to say to other disabled jobseekers out there?

Hearing the employee’s own voice will help combat the impression that the material is nothing more than a corporate puff piece.

Second, the main message of the material should focus on the employee’s strengths and contributions to his team, department, or company as a whole.

If the employee’s disability is visible, for example if he is physically disabled and sitting in a wheelchair or visually impaired with a white cane, there is no need to mention his disability in text form – let the visuals do the talking.

If the employee’s disability is invisible, such as in the case of autism or hearing impairment, a passing mention of the disability in the description will suffice.

The idea here is to de-emphasise the employee’s disability and instead cast the spotlight on his value as an employee.

Third, be extra careful about language use.

Check what is the current acceptable language used to describe the disabled.

“People with disabilities” is a pretty safe bet at the moment, but acceptable terminology changes all the time so it is important to keep an eye on evolving language patterns and adapt accordingly.

For example, the term “differently abled” used to be a politically correct replacement for “disabled”. The reasoning was that the prefix “dis-” has a negative connotation, implying that the disabled are inferior or lacking in some way.

Replacing it with “differently” suggests that the disabled are not missing abilities, but simply have other kinds of abilities that are not usually seen. This was meant to sound more empowering.

However, there has been a recent shift away from the term “differently abled”. Strangely, critics now condemn its focus on “differences”, claiming it implies that there is a standard body and so-called nonstandard bodies.

According to them, no two people are alike so there is no such thing as a standard body. Other critics of the term say that it downplays the challenges disabled people face in their daily lives.

Based on my observations, the term “neurodiverse” seems to be coming into vogue to replace “differently abled”.

This can all be quite confusing, but it is worth tracking these changes and using the terminology that is more widely accepted to avoid any unnecessary faux pas.

Despite all these precautions, there will – in all likelihood – still be a small number of people who react negatively to your publicity message.

There is little businesses can do about them. There will almost always be cynics and haters who take offence at the most trivial things.

Businesses should just ignore the naysayers and focus on the good work they are already doing: Making a real difference in the lives of the disabled people they hire – providing them with a dignified living – one job at a time.

I, for one, would wholeheartedly support such businesses, because I prize above all the opportunity to earn my keep, pay my own bills, and afford a decent quality of life through work.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jonathan Tiong is a fourth-year student at the National University of Singapore where he is majoring in Communications and New Media. He has spinal muscular atrophy and will be starting work in a public relations role next year.

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