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Why Diversity Really Matters

Ruth Le Pla, NZ Management Magazine Cover Story 15 November 2012

Click here to read the full article about Diversity on the NZ Management Website or continue reading below for the excerpt on Accessibility.

It’s all about access

...Meanwhile, Be. Accessible chief executive Minnie Baragwanath contends that New Zealand businesses are starting to discover the power of what she calls the “access economy”.

Set up just last year under the Be. Institute umbrella – a social enterprise partnership between Auckland Council, AUT and the Auckland District Health Board – Be. Accessible is a nationwide accessibility movement helping join the dots between accessibility, employment and wider economic success.

Some 20 percent of New Zealanders are living with a disability. And it’s estimated that around 43 percent of those of working age are either under- or unemployed. Studies put the opportunity cost of this workforce exclusion alone at around $11.7 billion.

More to the point, by helping businesses become more accessible to people with disabilities, Baragwanath says her group’s Be. Welcome initiative is “already creating a new customer group and a new way of doing business that is not only benefiting their bottom line but also generating an entirely new economy”.

Be. team coaches can check out and rate the accessibility of organisations, and then help plug them in to “access customers”. These may include older people, people using wheelchairs, parents pushing a stroller, or people with a hearing, vision or mental health impairment.

Be. Accessible stats show the potential for growth is huge. In the 65-plus age bracket alone, half of all Kiwis are thought to have a disability of some sort. Fast forward 18 years to 2030 and a quarter of all Kiwis will be part of that age group.

Green Party MP Mojo Mathers likes to say she has “700,000 reasons to advocate” for equality. That’s how many New Zealanders live with a hearing impairment. When she first walked into the Beehive to take her seat after last year’s general election she became our country’s first deaf MP and only the fifth deaf MP in the world.

Her high-profile role ensures she remains a catalyst for change. Mathers says people with disabilities often raise with her how hard it is to convince employers they can do a job.

“The level of employment of disabled people with skills and qualifications is about the same as that of able-bodied people who have no skills or qualifications,” she says. “That tells me workplaces may be missing out on getting some of the best people for the job.”

Parliament, she points out, is her workplace and her selection raised debate about what inclusion and diversity in the workplace really mean.

She uses an electronic note-taking system for debates in Parliament and, for keeping in touch by phone, taps in to the NZ Relay Service which provides services for people who are deaf, hearing impaired, deaf-blind, or have a speech disability.

She champions the message that inclusion benefits everyone: often in unexpected ways.

Conducted through the NZ Relay Service, Green Party conference calls have become more smooth and productive, she says, as people have to speak more slowly, not interrupt each other, and get to the point more quickly.

And at face-to-face Party meetings, chairs are now arranged in a circle and the lighting has been improved. This makes it easier for her to lip read. Meetings are more structured. It is, she says, a win-win for everyone.

“From an employer’s perspective, the first step is often the hardest. Once you’ve become an inclusive workforce, you wonder what the problem or concern was all about.”

Meanwhile, in a packed breakout session at the HRINZ conference, Leeanne Carson-Hughes sums up a discussion on talent management with a piece of advice of her own. She points out that she’s the only “girl” on the senior management team at Christchurch International Airport.

“Every now and again there’s a defining moment in your career,” she tells the group. “You’ve got to decide whether to take up the opportunity that’s there,” she says. “So be courageous.” 

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