The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – July 2021

Gender inequality at work

By Dr Armand Bam and Linda Ronnie

  • JAN 2021
13 minutes to read


Why do disabled people often feel marginalised at work?

Since 1994, South Africa has made significant strides in eradicating unfair discrimination in the workplace, using various pieces of legislation to achieve this. The Employment Equity Act (No 55 of 1998) has been pivotal in this regard. Various forms of disability are catered for under the Act; yet they are given less attention than race which, in the light of the country’s complex political history and uneven economic playing field, is still very much under the spotlight. As a result, many organisations lack the knowledge, processes and physical facilities to effectively accommodate people with disabilities (PWD) so that they feel included and able to make a meaningful contribution.

Many organisations go out of their way to treat disabled people as ‘normally’ as possible – not calling too much attention to their impairments, as this could make the individuals feel uncomfortably exposed. Indeed, some disabled people themselves endorse such an approach, preferring not to be singled out for special treatment. However, an organisation’s attempts to treat all employees equally can be counterproductive. It can result in disabled employees suffering in silence and not putting in their best effort because they are physically or emotionally unable to do so.

A more nuanced approach is required. ‘Inclusion’ in an organisational context does not equate to treating everyone the same or equally; instead, it involves broadening the scope of what is regarded as normal, with relevant support provided to make things as equitable as possible. ‘Equity’ acknowledges that people are different, but its intent is to narrow the differences in sensible and sensitive ways.

Inclusion in the workplace has different dimensions; the absence of any one of them could lead to employees feeling marginalised. Crucially, the physical working environment (spatial layout, accessibility, equipment) must cater to disabled people’s needs – whether it is an access ramp for someone with limited mobility or is wheelchair-bound, adjusted acoustics for someone who is hearing impaired or a human or canine guide for someone who is blind.

In addition, managerial and employee attitudes towards people with disabilities impact the latter’s level of comfort, productivity, motivation and commitment to the organisation. Sadly, studies have shown that many organisations are becoming less, and not more, tolerant and empathetic towards disabled employees, with overt discrimination being quite common. Where organisations have introduced policies and procedures to better cater to disabled people’s needs, it is often simply for compliance purposes – a box-ticking exercise that is largely devoid of concern for the individuals in question. Sometimes discrimination is practised unwittingly – more the result of neglect than a conscious choice, which suggests a detached management style.

Studies have shown that many organisations are becoming less, and not more, tolerant and empathetic towards disabled employees, with overt discrimination being quite common.

How this study was conducted

Because of the sensitivities surrounding disability in the workplace (both on the part of employers and employees), the phenomenon has not attracted much in-depth research. To address this shortcoming, this study aimed to find out how a group of disabled people were treated at work, both initially when they joined the organisation and later as they settled into their jobs. Based on the findings, the study recommended a number of ways in which organisations could create a more inclusive and productive environment for PWD.

The research methodology was qualitative in nature, with data collected through semi-structured interviews. The participants, displaying different types of impairment (including paraplegia, deafness and blindness) were drawn from different organisations in the Western Cape Province in South Africa.

Some people try and conceal their impairment for as long as possible for fear of being rejected or at least being considered less capable than their non-disabled colleagues.

Key findings from the study

A number of themes could be discerned from participants’ responses:

  • Sensitivity must underpin the induction and orientation processes. While acknowledging that induction and orientation processes for new employees are important, some participants found the approach adopted by their organisation too formal, and quite alienating. In some cases, ‘disability awareness’ sessions were held – largely to sensitise non-disabled employees to the challenges faced by their disabled co-workers. Yet this tended to merely call attention to the latter’s differences, making integration into the organisation difficult. These awareness sessions were often staged by ‘experts’ who had not consulted with the disabled employees themselves.

From the interviews it was evident that PWD wish to blend into – and not stand out in – the working environment, but they need assistance from, for example, an assigned mentor or a ‘buddy’ who can help them settle in.


  • Disclosing a disability in the right way is crucial. It was very evident from participants’ responses that disclosing a disability to colleagues (unless it is immediately obvious) can be a very difficult experience. In fact, some people try and conceal their impairment for as long as possible for fear of being rejected or at least being considered less capable than their non-disabled colleagues. Several participants reported that once they or others had revealed that they had a disability, colleagues started treating them differently.


What emerged from the interviews was that PWD want control over how and when their disability is disclosed to others. If an employer chooses to inform employees of a disabled colleague’s impairment without their consent or input, the individual is likely to see this as a disrespectful act, or even betrayal.


  • Honesty and acceptance go hand in hand. In their attempt to play down their disability and appear normal to co-workers (thereby preserving their confidence and self-esteem), disabled employees may push themselves to the limit physically. Although assistance could well be at hand, disabled employees may be reluctant to ask for it, choosing to persevere and do whatever it takes to meet (or exceed) expectations.


Ultimately, disabled people’s integration into an organisation is dependent on their having a realistic view of their physical capabilities and limitations, and managers and co-workers reaching out with appropriate forms of support.


  • Frustration is a constant companion to those with disabilities. Participants spoke about feeling frustrated a lot of the time – frustrated by the extra time and effort required to perform tasks, frustrated by their inability to compete with non-disabled colleagues in various areas, frustrated by a lack of support or resources in the workplace, and so on. The level of frustration experienced was heavily dependent on the type and severity of someone’s disability (such as hard of hearing vs. deaf, or mild mobility issues vs. paraplegia). However, it was also a product of their working environment – how managers and co-workers respond to a person’s disabilities and what measures are implemented to facilitate their physical wellbeing and productivity as well as their social inclusion within the organisation.


If those with disabilities need to put in excessive effort to appear normal in the eyes of their managers and peers, frustration is bound to take root and sprout in unhealthy ways.


  • Physical vulnerability often leads to emotional vulnerability. For some participants, being compromised in a physical sense – and having to retreat from certain activities or rely on the help of others – heightened their emotional vulnerability. Even a simple change in routine, like being assigned to work in different locations with unfamiliar facilities, had the potential to induce a great deal of anxiety. The situation might be even more fraught if their organisation had embraced a policy of treating all employees equally and exposing them to similar opportunities and challenges.


Even if, on the surface, a disabled person appears to be coping well, they could be experiencing emotional turbulence. If left unchecked, this could steadily erode their confidence and desire to succeed.

‘Inclusion’ in an organisational context does not equate to treating everyone the same or equally; instead, it involves broadening the scope of what is regarded as normal.

Co-creating an inclusive organisational culture

Disability is a fact of life and something that most people will be affected by at some stage. Why then is disability not readily accepted as a normal part of an organisation’s culture? Having the right legislation in place is a good start; yet the ‘equity’ in employment equity needs to be applied much more vigorously to PWD in South Africa. To this end, managers and non-disabled employees need to be more open about and less fearful of disability in the workplace. Together they can create an inclusive organisational culture that still acknowledges and values differences in people.

Disabled employees, in turn, can play an important role in altering misplaced assumptions and perceptions about their commitment and capability levels, and help their organisations to see that they require physical, professional and social support if they are to integrate effectively and deliver value.


  • Find the original article here: Bam, A., & Ronnie, L. (2020). Inclusion at the workplace: An exploratory study of people with disabilities in South Africa. International Journal of Disability Management, 15(e6), 1-9.
  • Dr Armand Bam is a senior lecturer in Business in Society at USB. He is also head of USB Social Impact, and head of USB’s Small Business Academy.

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