All companies are in favour of more Diversity & Inclusion, in theory. But in reality, many businesses are struggling to turn theory into practice. In this series of articles, we focus on inspiring practical examples.

Episode 3: How employees with disability increased the productivity of an international bank and a training agency.

In the coffee bar of ABN Amro, an international bank with head office in Amsterdam, you order your cappuccino or espresso in sign language. All the bar tenders are either deaf or hard of hearing. If you don´t happen to know any sign language, you don´t have to worry, because a as soon as you type in your order on a touch screen, a short video will show you how to place your order.

The sign language coffee bar is more than just a publicity stunt. “The unemployment rate under deaf people is around 80%,” says Sven Romkes, People Development Consultant Diversity & Inclusion with ABN Amro. “The sign language coffee bar will not solve that problem, but what it can do is make our clients and employees aware of what it means to have a form of disability.”

Sven Romkes knows what he´s talking about, as he himself is in a wheelchair because of his spasticity. He is one of the main drivers behind the “Be Able” program of the international bank, which focusses on recruiting talent with some form of disability for all levels of the organisation. 


Surprising side effects 

ABN Amro is one the few multinationals that has a successful D&I program for people with disability. Although 90% of companies claim to prioritize diversity, only 4% consider disability in those initiatives, according to a report from the Return On Disability Group. “In the Netherlands 16% have a program around disability, but only 6% is successful,” says Sven Romkens. “Most of them are smaller companies.”

One of those companies is Mind at Work, a research & training agency that hires people with mental disability. “Although I don´t really think of them as people with a disability anymore, they are just my colleagues,” says Joke van der Loon, HR manager at Mind Work. 

The company has noticed a surprising side effect of their D&I program, sick leave among employees without disability went down. Sven Romkes experienced the same: “I have no way to prove this, but probably you feel more motivated to go the extra mile, if you have a colleague in wheelchair, or who´s blind, and you see him or her doing the effort day in day out.”

In other words, it pays off to invest in a strong D&I program for people with disability. This is what companies should do if they want to follow these examples:

1.    Just get started, even if not everything is perfect yet

There are all kinds of practical issues that need be addressed if you want set up a good D&I program for people with disability: the office needs to be accessible for wheelchairs, and you need to have software and adjusted computers if you hire people that are partially sighted or blind. “But don’t let all of that stop you from just starting your D&I program,” says Sven Romkes. “Many times, companies are so preoccupied with making sure that everything is perfect, that they never get around to actually hiring people with disability.”

2.    Focus on people´s abilities, instead of on their disability 

“One of the most common misconceptions that keeps companies from hiring people with disability is they will probably be on sick leave all the time,” says Joke van der Loon. “The opposite is true: people are usually so happy they finally get a chance to prove themselves that they give 200%.  Most of my colleagues had already applied for many other positions before they finally got hired by us. 

The other misconception is that people with disability cannot function at the same level as their colleagues. “We never make any concessions to the job requirements when we hire someone with a disability,” says Sven Romkes. “We expect exactly the same quality of work of a marketing manager with a disability as we do of any other marketing manager in the company.”

3.    Give newcomers an individual coach 

“This is one thing that companies can learn from our experience at ABN Amro,” says Sven Romkes. “When we started this program, we only gave new joiners an individual coach if we thought he or she needed it. That was a mistake. People who we thought would do great, didn´t make if without a coach. It´s still not obligatory to have a coach, but believe me, I make it sound so appealing that everyone agrees to it.”

The career coach helps new joiners with a disability to overcome the challenges that may block the way to success. He trains them in accepting their limitations, in consistency, social resilience, managing their energy level and creating career opportunities.

“To succeed in a company as an employee with disability It is crucial that you know your own limitations,” explains Sven Romkes. “You need to accept that your body is not able to do certain things, and not push you limits all the time.”

 “For example, due to a brain hemorrhage organising and planning is a challenge for me. It´s difficult to acknowledge that, but if I don´t, my colleagues will not understand what is going wrong all the time. Once you´ve accepted your vulnerable points, you can start looking for solutions. I get support from my colleagues, for example, and I color code every appointment according to the urgency. This is what the coach does for our new joiners as well; he helps them to help themselves and to stay positive.”

4.    Create the right working conditions

The level of functioning may be the same, the working conditions need to be tailored to the individual needs of the employee. “It´s important that people can organise their own work and time schedule in order to manage their energy level,” explains Joke van der Loon. “Just like you should give them the flexibility to work from home, if they need some peace and quiet.”

The team dynamics change, when you have colleagues with a form a disability in your team. “We use a method that is called ´job crafting´,” says Sven Romkes. “You could compare it to the way students in school tend to work on assignments together. What do they do? First they look at who is the best at each part of the assignment, whether it´s organising, researching, writing or presenting. Then they divide the tasks according to their individual talents. That way you get the best out of everyone, and you get help from colleagues in the parts that you are less good at.”

This might be another reason why the number of sick leaves is decreasing, confirms Sven Romkes: by creating a good working environment for employees with disability, you almost automatically create a better environment for everyone in the company. It´s a win-win-situation.   


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