Ending taboos around disability at work, and removing obstacles that prevent better integration, must be strategic priorities for businesses in Dubai and beyond as they tackle one of the most pressing issues facing Middle Eastern society – the barriers facing people with disabilities.

That was the conclusion of the recent Inclusive Employment and Occupational Learning Conference (ICIEOL 2017) in Dubai, which brought together academic and training experts to look at research and best practice in the area.

The Community Development Authority (CDA) in Dubai, is looking for new and innovative approaches to empower ‘people of determination’, said CDA’s director general, Ahmed Abdul Karim Julfar.

The CDA is working to design programmes and events that will make it easier for those with disabilities to find both private and public sector jobs. The Authority also wants to quash stereotypes and raise awareness, in line with Dubai’s aim to be a ‘Disability Friendly City’ by 2020.

“Investing in human capital is a cornerstone of the authority’s new strategy,” said Julfar. “This includes, of course, people of determination. CDA is expediting its plans to create professional training programmes to fully integrate this segment with the wider community. These programmes seek to equip people of determination with the necessary skills and knowledge to excel.”

HR expert Professor Chris Rowley of Kellogg College, University of Oxford, told People Management such a shift could not come too soon. He said: “In the Arab world, disability remains a taboo subject, often met with silence and ignorance and commonly very poor facilities, access, and so on. To help overcome this requires raising awareness by using role models, and highlighting successes and accomplishments in the mainstream media.”

In 2010, the CEO of Dubai’s Community Development Authority, Sheikh Maktoum Bin Butti Al Maktoum, spoke publicly about how people with disabilities were struggling to gain a foothold in the workplace as prejudice hampered their chances of landing a job.

This issue is now being addressed, the conference heard. Ahmad Al Mulla, head of community relations at Tamkeen, said: “One of the most important challenges facing people of determination in the labour market is potential employers’ lack of confidence in their capacity to do their job, as well as the wider public’s stereotypical views towards this segment of society. Therefore, it is necessary that we work together to remove this obstacle that prevents the integration of stakeholders in society and create a supportive environment for them to be active members of their communities.”

According to Rowley, HR has a key role, on three levels, in including disabled workers in the workplace. “HR and business leaders should lobby policy and lawmakers asking for the requisite action or legislation to either set targets for disabled employment, or to bring in anti-discrimination legislation,” he said.

“Strategically, HR should convince management of the importance of inclusion and publically support initiatives.

“And in the workplace, HR managers need to remember one of their roles is to be ‘employee champions’, and they should encourage applications from disabled people by promoting organisational culture that is inclusive and open, as well as reducing non-diversity and inflexibility, breaking down stereotypes, and making reasonable adjustments in the workplace as well as part-time and flexi-working patterns.

“While training may well be needed, it is not just for the disabled themselves – who may need encouragement to apply for jobs – but rather for policymakers and management practitioners,” concluded Rowley.

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