It’s not just the right thing to do… Yves Veuillet, IBM

| | posted on:Success Stories

Global Disability & Inclusion Manager
“I started my career in IBM about 25 years ago,” says Veulliet, Global Disability & Inclusion Manager. “Because IBM already had a longstanding commitment to the inclusion of persons with disabilities, I was lucky to find myself in an enabling environment.” Already then, Veulliet found a work culture that was prepared to welcome employees with disabilities as any other employee. “IBM’s first employee with a disability was hired as far back as 1914”, he tells.

It’s not just the right thing to do... Yves Veuillet, IBMVeulliet started out as many young, freshly-graduated people: in an entry position as an administrative assistant. From the very beginning he was encouraged to take courses internally and externally to develop his skills and advance in his career. And he did.

“In 2005 I started as the manager of the Diversity & Inclusion program in Europe and later in Canada. To me, it was a way of paying back IBM for all they allowed me to be and become in my professional path.” Since February this year, Veulliet has assumed the Global Disability & Inclusion Manager role. He is in charge of overseeing the elaboration of inclusive programs around the globe that take into account different cultures and contexts, ensuring that programs are effective for people at all levels of the organization.

But before he made it, Veulliet had to knock on quite a few doors. Stefan Trömel, Senior Specialist in Disability Inclusion at the International Labour Organization (ILO), notes that the misconceptions and wrong assumptions about what people with disabilities can and cannot do are one of the biggest barriers they face in accessing jobs.

And once they get a job, attitudes continue to shape their working environment. A study carried out in 2005 about the effect ofcorporate culture on the employment of people with disabilities found that even in companies that are committed to hiring disabled persons, negative attitudes from co-workers and supervisors have a major effect on the performance and career advancement opportunities of the disabled employees. As Veulliet points out, “The reality is that we are all afraid of the unknown. Most people are uncomfortable at first around people with disabilities, it is natural.”

Overcoming the Fear of the unknown

Although empiric research on the matter is scarce, existing evidence suggests that once employers overcome their fear of the unknown, hiring and working with people with disabilities becomes natural. Several studies reached a similar conclusion: the more exposure employers had to employing people with disabilities the more favorable they were towards continuing this trend.

“How do you speak about someone’s ‘disability’ when it is hidden by their ‘ability’?”, says Sean Callaghan, reflecting on his managing experience. Callaghan is a General Manager at Sodexo, in Toronto, Canada. His team of 36 includes 4 people with different disabilities, “but most importantly, they have different abilities”, he says. “Although I did receive some training, which is always helpful, working with individuals with disabilities is also about using common sense and practicing patience and respect.”

Enabling, not disabling

In addition to employers’ attitudes, it’s a lot about the environment. Not just the physical aspects, but also the work culture and an inclusive atmosphere.

“At the end of the day, an employer’s mission is to provide me with an enabling environment so I can manage my disability », says Veulliet, “and my mission as an employee is to manage my disability and my work. Roles must be clear for both.” According to him, when he joined IBM his disability literally vanished because the premises were highly accessible. “IBM already had very high accessibility standards back then and I could work without any obstacles. All my colleagues could interact with me easily and I felt completely autonomous.”

Callaghan points out that different disabilities require different adjustments and they rarely involve complicated or expensive solutions. “One member of our team is deaf, so colleagues write things down and use hand gestures to communicate with her”, he explains, “It is amazing how much can be said without using words or sounds.”

By working with people with different types of disability, Callaghan learned that for someone with a learning disability, using simple language does the trick; for someone with Autism, routine is key; and finally, when working with his employee with Asperger’s, taking the time to explain and show how things are done in the very beginning pay off. “Once you show him [Kurt, his employee] how to do something, he does it perfectly every time after that.”

Why hire?

Some of the most successful multinational corporations that have inclusion policies recognize the positive effects of the inclusion of people with disabilities into their workforces. A 2005 study in the US found that 42 percent of the top 100 companies in the Fortune 500 list of 2003 included disability as a component of their workforce diversity policy, and 15 percent had supplier diversity policies that were inclusive of disability.

Multinationals pushing their suppliers to become more inclusive, along with legislation, are major drives for inclusion at the national level. In Indonesia, where legislation mandates that disabled people must make up at least 1 per cent of a company’s workforce, Better Work helps companies comply with the law. “One of our team members, Angela Friska, who is Deaf, raises awareness among the employers in the garment industry,” says Simon Field, Chief Technical Advisor for Better Work Indonesia. Field explains that by working with Friska, employers begin to understand that people with disabilities are as capable as anyone else.

To date, only three of the 90 suppliers Better Work works with are fully compliant with the legislation. “There is still a lot of work to be done,” says Field. “But it’s a start.”

In addition to compliance, Corporate Social Responsibility plays a major role. Consumers are likely to look favorably upon companies that employ people with disabilities and, with a population as big as China’s (1 billion people, 15 percent of the world population), they also represent an overlooked multimillion dollar market segment. According to disability and corporate profitability expert, Rich Donovan, the estimates are even higher: as of 2013, 1.3 billion people with disabilities worldwide, plus 2.2 billion family and friends, control more than 8 trillion US dollars in global disposable income per year.

Overtime employers gradually realize that hiring people with disabilities is not just charity and that employees with disabilities have a lot to contribute. “It’s not just the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do”, says Sreela Das Gupta, Global Diversity & Inclusion manager at Tata Consulting Services.

And to further break stereotypes, Veulliet travels a lot around the globe in his wheelchair. In the many presentations he gives about disability inclusion, he asks managers to ask themselves why they should hire a person with a disability when they can hire a non-disabled one. “The answer is companies do not have to hire a person with a disability. They have to hire someone with the appropriate skills to perform a given job. If that person happens to have a disability, so be it, but disability is not the point.”

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