How Persons with Disabilities Build Resilience in the Workplace

Resilience is our capacity to recover from difficulties, our ability to bounce back from the problems we face. Psychologists are encouraging adults to foster resilience in children, as well as in themselves. It is highly applicable to persons with disabilities (PWDs) and to everyone in the workplace. If we have an attitude characterised by resilience, we will find it easier to cope with challenges, and not to succumb, but to surmount them. Adversity, trauma and tragedy affect us all from time to time, and we are also faced with stress on an ongoing or intermittent basis.

To illustrate how resilience is fostered, we can imagine the journeys we make through life. When we set out as young people, as a person in a new situation, or a PWD in the workplace, we need certain things for our journey. We need food and water (resources), and also a map (information), and a way to communicate with others (support). We need these things from the outset, and they need to be enough to keep us going on the right path over the long term. It is up to us to keep going on a daily basis, and not to become distracted or idle. But, if we are lacking in one or more of the three things mentioned above, we will struggle, lose stamina, and get lost. In such a case, we can fall down, not be able to get up, and then emergency and costly interventions are needed to save us.

So, while resilience is something that is built up by us inside ourselves, we still need assistance to get going and remain secure. Resilience is acquired through meeting adversity, but no one should be left entirely on their own. We should not wait for the person to be on their last before assisting. Our attitude should be one of ongoing supportiveness and encouragement. Otherwise, the results will be damaging.

People with resilience have what is termed an ‘internal locus of control’, which is a strong belief that they determine their fate, and not their circumstances. How they react to situations and what they achieve is up to them. They also often have one or more people in their lives who serve as mentors and good examples to them. This may be a parent, but not always. Some people with exceptional resilience come from difficult home circumstances, and they find mentors elsewhere, such as in the education space, their social environment, religious organisation, or in the workplace. Good resilience is also seen in the attitude that problems are a chance to learn, and not allowing them to control us.

However, in the face of great pressure, the resilience we have worked so hard to build up can fail us. A person with good coping skills may be overwhelmed by long-term stressors or a series of major losses. We all know that everything can tend to go well for a while, and then for some reason it all falls apart at once. For PWDs, this can certainly be the case as their health or other circumstances may take a turn for the worse. They may have been performing well in the workplace, but some employers are less understanding when they can’t anymore, which adds to their stress. Stress, in turn, further negatively affects their health and exasperates the situation. Then, family and friends may let them down, and their financial situation becomes constrained by high medical costs and/or a loss of income.

People in such situations thus really need understanding and help, and it is our duty to assist them in the workplace. It is unacceptable – and against the law – to exclude PWDs. It is wrong to add to their stress unnecessarily with unkind comments or behaviour. We must endeavour to help others build resilience or at least not break down what resilience they do have.

The struggle of those with disabilities, and of all humankind, is also against society’s oppressive, archaic ways of doing things, the ways in which it views and treats anything that is subject to it, and the ways in which it is acted out or resisted by individuals. As individuals we can seek either a brighter, more inclusive world for all, or try to maintain an existing but defunct system – it’s our choice.

The above is an extract from Racism, Classism, Sexism, And The Other ISMs That Divide Us by Devan Moonsamy, available from the ICHAF Training Institute and all leading books stores.

The book tackles contemporary issues in the South African workplace. It is an excellent guide for managers to harnessing diversity for success and overcoming diversity-related challenges.

Devan specialises in conflict and diversity management, and regularly conducts seminars on these issues for corporates. To book a seminar with Devan, please use the contact details below.

Tel: 011 262 2461 | Email: |