Sightsavers: Championing Disability Inclusion in the Workplace
Sightsavers was originally founded in 1950 as the British Empire Society for the Blind to support people with blindness and visual impairments, but has since widened its scope.
The organisation works towards a world where no one is blind from avoidable causes, neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are eliminated and where people with disabilities can participate equally in society. An inclusive approach to the workplace has helped the organisation earn Disability Confident Leader status, a scheme run by the UK government to promote accessibility across organisations.
This achievement is just one of the many ways the organisation supports and empowers people with disabilities. Sightsavers has worked on influencing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development since 2010, co-chairing the international civil society campaign Beyond 2015 from 2014, and partnering closely with the International Disability Alliance (IDA) and through the International Disability and Development Consortium (IDDC) to ensure the rights of people with disabilities were reflected throughout the Sustainable Development Goals. They work with partners at national level to improve coordination and inclusion of health, education and disability in national development plans. Their campaign work has taken them around the globe, from New York where in 2018 they campaigned successfully for better representation of women on the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to Pakistan, where they helped pass a historic law in 2020 banning discrimination against people with disabilities.
The achievement of Disability Confident Employer status is a huge achievement for the organisation and highlights their leadership in the field as an employer of choice for people with disabilities. We have been speaking to Sightsavers to find out more about this important scheme and how this will help them going forward.
What did you have to do to achieve this recognition?
Sightsavers attained Disability Confident Leadership status by undertaking a range of activities including:
- Advertising vacancies with a specialist jobs board that targets candidates with disabilities,
- Setting a disability confident expectation with the recruitment agencies we work with,
- Working with local job centre teams in the UK, piloting alternative application and selection methods to encourage applications from neurodiverse candidates,
- Raising awareness internally through an interdepartmental Social Inclusion Working Group
- Hosting talks by external speakers on a diverse range of disabilities,
- Engaging an occupational health provider that understands the work of NGOs,
- The provision of disability awareness training for new starters and overseas staff
- Creating an online wellbeing hub for all staff.
Can you tell us about the moment you were made aware of the award win, and how you all felt as a team?
We felt very pleased, as this award is a recognition of the hard work led by different teams to transform Sightsavers into an employer of choice for people with disabilities, and we hope it encouraged any candidates with a disability to apply to us. However, we recognise that it’s definitely just one step on the journey: working with people with disabilities in partnership on our programmes means that we are always learning new ways to be more inclusive, and that’s how it should be.
Why is winning the award important to the organisation?
In the words of our CEO Caroline Harper, we are ‘living our mission and practising what we preach.’ As an organisation that promotes disability rights around the world, we believe that people with disabilities need to have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives and we want to help make those voices heard. It’s also a huge strength for an organisation to have a diverse workplace. Kate Bennell, our disability inclusion and accessibility coordinator, has worked at Sightsavers for over twenty years. She said: ‘As a disabled employee, I feel really positive about the changes and progress we have made. It’s been a great journey and we still have more to do, especially in influencing other organisations to adopt disability inclusive approaches.’
What are the positive effects on the organisation as a whole and how this will help you with your future endeavours?
Over 17,300 employers have signed up to the Disability Confident scheme but the Disability Confident Leader accreditation is shared with just 300 of them, and Sightsavers is one of only two international NGOs to show this level of commitment to the scheme. This puts us in a great position to attract more talented people with disabilities to our organisation and showcase the benefits of a diverse workforce to the rest of the third sector.
What new approaches or ideas do you have on the horizon for the organisation?
Using the experience we’ve gained from working with people with disabilities, we’re now working hard to make all of our eye health programmes inclusive. Our new approach will help to break down the barriers that prevent everyone from accessing healthcare and ensure our health programmes can help as many people as possible. This is helped by having people with disabilities working on our projects who can point out where we could improve.
Apart from achieving this fantastic recognition, what have been your biggest achievements since Sightsavers began?
Reaching one billion treatments around the world for neglected tropical diseases was an important milestone for us. Dorcas, a young girl from Nigeria, received our one billionth treatment in 2017, protecting her from two different tropical diseases that were prevalent in the area. Another key moment was our Million Miracles campaign in 2018 where our supporters raised the money to carry out one million sight-saving eye surgeries around the world. At the end of last year, we were delighted to receive over 50,000 signatures on our petition calling on the United Nations to uphold the rights of people with disabilities around the world. We handed this to the UN Under-Secretary-General in New York.
What would you like to see in the future for all people living with sight loss?
We are fighting for a world where people with visual impairments and other disabilities are included in society and can participate on an equal basis, from voting in elections to going to school. We want to see all spheres of life made accessible for people with disabilities and the stigma around disability disappear, so that no one is left out in society.
What do you see happening in the next ten years at Sightsavers?
We will continue to promote the economic, social and political empowerment of people with disabilities in developing countries. Through the new Inclusive Futures programme we are working to ensure people with disabilities can find formal employment in developing countries as well as improving access to education and healthcare, while also combatting stigmatisation.
Our fight against neglected tropical diseases will continue and we’ll help more countries around the world to banish these diseases for good. We will also continue to help build stronger health systems in which quality eye care is available to all who need it.
You can read more about the great work Sightsavers does here
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