The facts about disability no one talks about at work

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Managing disability in the workplace includes the management of disability status (Shutterstock.com)

Many people associate a disability with someone who is either in a wheelchair, blind or deaf.  However, people with a disability come in all shapes and sizes. We attended a workshop presented by Progression – Transformation Enablers, an organisation that offers companies a range of solutions tailored to meet today's evolving business environment. We learnt more about the ins and outs of disability in the workplace.

Let’s start off with the basics…

The Employment Equity Act describes a person with a disability as someone who has a long term or recurring physical, including sensory or mental impairment which substantially limits their prospect of entry into or advancement in employment.

Whether caused by an accident, trauma, genetics or disease, as long as a condition limits a person’s mobility, hearing vision, speech and intellectual or emotional function, it is considered a disability.

Beyond physical, mental and sensory conditions, there are also progressive conditions. Therefore, chronic illnesses, such as cancer, TB, HIV and diabetes are all considered disabilities. The only difference with progressive disabilities is that they only become recognised as a disability when they start limiting your ability to perform inherent requirements of your job.

Read: Are you too sick to work?

Conditions excluded

  • Wearing of contact lenses and spectacles unless the person’s vision remains substantially impaired in spite of wearing glasses;
  • Compulsive gambling, tendency to steal or light fires;
  • Sexual behaviour disorders against public policy;
  • Disorders that affect a person’s mental or physical state caused by the current use of illegal drugs or alcohol unless the person is participating in a recognised programme of treatment;
  • Normal deviation in height, weight or strength and conventional mental and physical characteristics and common personality traits;
  • Self-imposed body adornments such as tattoos and piercings.
  • How to verify a disability

    Managing a disability in the workplace includes the management of a disability status. Let’s take this scenario:

    *Jim informs you as the manager that he’s recently been diagnosed with lung cancer (a progressive disability) and in the future, may need to take off some hours during the week to visit his doctor. If your company has no disability process in place, how do you verify whether Jim’s condition is in fact a disability?

    Not too sure?

    When an employee discloses his or her status, having a clear disability verification process in place will ensure the condition disclosed falls within the definition of a disability as outlined in the Employment Equity Act. However, because the definition is broad by design, the social and medical models of disability work together to ensure a fair and accessible way of dealing with a disability status.

    The medical model requires that there is a clinically diagnosed physical or mental condition that is long term and recurring. It requires medical confirmation from a registered health professional.

    The social model is about exploring the manner in which the individual experiences the condition to establish if they experience it in a manner that is substantially limiting.

    More than that, a process will allow for consistency in the way you manage an employee's condition. Plus, when Jim goes in for his checkups, the rest of the team won’t think that Jim is receiving special treatment.

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    When drawing up the verification process for your company, consider the following:

  • Clarity on the best practice principles
  • A method for unpacking the definition using the elements of both the medical and social models
  • Lastly, if you’re not sure whether Jim really has lung cancer, by law you have the right to request medical proof. However, if an employee comes to you with a condition that is obvious, there is no legal requirement for the employee to hand you a doctor’s verification.