Build your awareness

Małgorzata Perdeus-Białek - Trainer in disability awareness, co-author of the Win with Capgemini programme, member of the Come CloSeR to Disability Task Force, graduate of the Jagiellonian University, Metrum School for Trainers in Katowice and the SWPS University in Warsaw, co-author of a method of visual art adaptation to the needs of blind, partially sighted and elderly persons called MT3D. Each training course she delivers is different because trainee groups are different as are their needs, that diversity giving her professional satisfaction.



The text by Małgorzata Perdeus-Białek lifted from the guidebook entitled The Accessible Company in an Accessible Environment published by the Managers of the Future MOFFIN Foundation in cooperation with the Come CloSeR to Disability Task Force.

Build your awareness

We have written this guidebook as we consider it very important. If it is in front of you and you are reading these words , it probably means you need it, too. It contains answers to the question what to do to ensure that a disabled person who submits their CV at your company could end up successfully as its employee and develop their professional career as well as advance at workplace. However, before you read our answers to the question “how?”, I would like to encourage you to contemplate the “why” answer, or two questions, to be exact: “Why is there a problem with employing persons with disabilities?” and “Why should we do it?”. It would be difficult to contain here the multitude of ideas that cross the minds of those working in that area. I tend to think in terms of the conviction that one of the key reasons why barriers to employment appear is the fact that we are not sufficiently aware of what disability is.

We think that the issue is another person’s health making them unable to operate like others, i.e. those healthy ones. Yet that is not the case, as evidenced, for instance, by the fact that we have work colleagues who are ill and consequently not fully able, yet are important and valuable members of our teams. The problem appears when that disturbed state of health combined with a certain and not some other way of constructing the environment (social, physical or administrative) makes one unable to perform the role assigned to them the way others do. This is exactly the definition of disability found in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities1, which reads as follows: “Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

Consequently, one aspect that “disables” people to a large extent is the fact that we build around us spaces inaccessible to some social groups. The key to breaking this vicious circle may be reasonable accommodation, also described in the Convention quoted above. How to do it is also a problem related to poor disability awareness. We do not know what a barrier is. We cannot see which elements of our daily lives will become a limit not to be overcome by someone else. It is equally obvious that we do not know what we can replace it with.

Persons with disabilities are not employed also because of stereotypes we nourish. Our daily experience (characterised by little contact with persons with disabilities)2 makes us dependent on images full of fear of our own potential disability and the conviction that we would not cope ourselves when faced with it. After all, we do not know which skills compensating for disability-related limitations and which equipment such persons use.

Likewise, we are not helped by the media portraying persons with disabilities whose lives are exceptionally hard or, conversely, interesting. Presented are particularly distinct cases of persons in extremely difficult health or financial circumstances in order to stir the feelings and interest of the viewer and keep them glued to the screen (or force them to buy a newspaper).

The other way of presenting persons with disabilities is to show them as superheroes – conquering poles, climbing mountain peaks or winning exhausting marathons. Such inspiring stories show that borders often reside in our heads. We all need them, yet… they are merely schematic constructs, and extreme at that.

In our society, there are both those finding themselves in very difficult circumstances (and so it is right that money is paid to their bank accounts whose numbers are printed below the relevant articles) and superheroes strong enough to reach the peak, whatever it is. Yet most people live normal lives like others. The media are silent about them – what is interesting in the fact that someone makes coffee in the morning, cleans the flat, goes shopping or walks their dog? In this way, we nourish stereotypes in our minds and we do not employ someone thinking that work is not for them – so “hard hit by fate”, or we employ someone else and then are surprised that they just wait for the weekend to come like all the others and are no superhero at all.

We do not employ persons with disabilities also because we are unaware of technological changes. Just twenty years ago, persons with mobility disability would use heavy and cumbersome wheelchairs. Now they can choose between different types of wheelchairs, each meeting different expectations of the user and, together with a building constructed in compliance with legislation in force, will face no challenges performing tasks entrusted to them, even if their health circumstances are very serious and complicated3.

We still think that the Braille alphabet is the only way for blind persons to communicate in writing. The truth is that the Braille system, very much appreciated and loved by some, is beginning to play a role similar to that of vinyl records – something charming, perfect, yet first and foremost vintage. It is known by those who were learning to read and write as blind children (this is the way they learn and should continue to learn). Such children (as adults) and those who lost sight already able to read and write will still primarily use the computer4 resorting to Braille only to take some notes and occasionally recording something that way.

The last reason for the presence of so few persons with disabilities in our teams I would like to mention is the fact that they cannot reach the bars we set. It is an objective fact in a way yet we tend to forget that our barriers are not the first ones these people cannot overcome. Their lives are a constant struggle with what is symbolically referred to as a “battle with three stairsteps”5. How can someone who “battles with three stairsteps” on a daily basis have enough energy to know two foreign languages at the B2 level when applying for a job? Persons with disabilities make a group with less opportunities not only when they seek employment at our enterprise. They make a group with less opportunities much earlier and thus stand a weaker chance of get into and shine in our teams. How should the employer approach things then? Where is the limit of additional support for prospective candidates (we do support certain groups in some ways after all)? How to avoid mistakes and not to overlook those who belong to the group in question yet meet professional requirements?

The previous sentence unavoidably leads us to the second “why?” question that I would like to discuss briefly: Why should we look for ways to employ persons with disabilities?

Out of many answers that come to mind, I would like to underline - first and foremost - that we should do it because this concerns not “them” but “us”. Each of us has been (when seriously ill), is (simply is) or will be (falling ill, having an accident or getting old) disabled. It is not my intention to evoke the fear hidden behind the phrase “You can be in that situation, too!” but to do away with dividing the world into “ours” and “theirs”. We are building the world not for someone imaginary who requires our patronising charitable care. We are building it for ourselves, so that we are not fearful that bad fate will take away from us not just health but also the possibility of doing what we can do: earning money that we can earn, realising our ambitions and being among people we need. Modern thinking about disability in the companies cooperating with the MOFFIN Foundation has saved not just their employees from losing jobs equivalent to putting them on the margins of social life but also the enterprises from losing competent staff members who due to a sudden illness and disability as its consequence lost the ability to perform their professional duties like before.

Experiences gained during the implementation of programmes supporting employment of persons with disabilities have shown that it is worthwhile to become involved in that regard also because employees want their companies to do something of note in terms of community engagement. Performing activities aimed at making the business more open to the needs of persons with disabilities is appreciated, for instance, by mothers of disabled children who thanks to them see some hope as regards their adult life.

Including persons with disabilities in the life of the company means stimulating a positive change in teams. This offers opportunities in terms of getting to know one another, overcoming stereotypes and building one’s own vision as well as breaking with wrong ideas cherished thus far. The necessity to make adaptations is tantamount to a change of the way work is done in teams and looking for new solutions. This means creativity and outside-the-box thinking must be stimulated in people and at the same time represents a step forward towards more flexible teams.

Let us employ persons with disabilities also because they can be good and loyal employees. However, with all the company’s efforts working towards making changes and adaptations, preparing non-disabled employees and learning the flexibility needed for success to take place, the workplace change risk is higher for them than non-disabled employees. A friendly physical space, well selected and efficiently operating support programmes, people around who are not overprotective and at the same time not afraid of joint work and provide reasonable assistance mean much more than all benefits and perks of the job which encourage other candidates to work for a given company.

It is an unusually fascinating subject, isn’t it? In order to check whether I am right, please complete the quiz that follows. Read carefully, this text will help you answer the Braille question correctly. And the other ones? If you are unable to find the correct answer to even one, reading this book was a good step. I would like it to encourage you to look for knowledge concerning disability and build your awareness. We are facing many curious challenges related to how much our biological features determine us in the manmade physical and social space.


1  The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 13 December 2006. Ratified by the European Union on 23 December 2010 and by Poland on 6 September 2012. The cited definition of disability comes from Article 1 of the Convention.

2  We all come into contact with persons with disability: a neighbour or an elderly family member. These are individuals, however, whose experiences - although highly significant - do not allow for making reasonable generalisations about, after all, one of the most diverse human groups.

3  It will be so as thanks to the wheelchair and accessible space that person will be able to function without constraints: to get anywhere and do anything they like – just like non-disabled persons.

4  Persons with disabilities make use of standard PCs additionally equipped with screen-reading and speech-synthesising applications. Partially sighted people use enlarging software working more or less like a magnifying glass built into the Windows OS, yet with better parametres. It is also possible to add a Braille notetaker or display.

5  This phrase relates to a TV programme called “LUZ” broadcast in the 1980s and 1990s by TVP (Polish state television). In 1990, it was authored by Anna Mentlewicz who came up with and introduced there the first-ever social action focusing on persons with disabilities which was called exactly “The battle with three stairsteps”. The goal of the programme was to draw attention to small barriers imperceptible for non-disabled persons which would be an insurmountable obstacle for a wheelchair user, for example. Youthful audience discussed it and was on the look-out for, as well as criticised, such barriers.