Case StudyMentoring

A South African Case Study of Mentoring in support of a learnership

Improving access to employment opportunities and careers for people with disabilities is a key focus of the South Africa Employment Equity Act and the various Codes of Practice associated with the Act. Yet the challenge of doing something practical about it has exercised the minds of many South African companies – how can they actually start?

This article focuses on an initiative by a South African utility company to run a Learnership specifically for people who are physically and or mentally challenged (Disabled). This was an 18-month programme, and 20 learners were recruited. The disabilities ranged from cleft palate to albinism and 3 folks in wheelchairs. They were placed within different departments of the head office to learn various office skills. The organisation realised that a formal mentoring scheme would help these learners to overcome difficulties in the workplace and so help them achieve their career goals.

The business case for a mentoring scheme in this type of programme includes the following factors:

  • Individuals with disabilities continue to face barriers such as attitudes and fears of their fellow employees. Mentoring can help the learners to adopt an active role in pursuing and developing their careers, identifying and overcoming these barriers
  • The mentoring relationship can overcome the fears of managers and fellow employees – working with a person with a disability, people begin to see the person’s capabilities rather than the disability and learn that disabilities are not limiting

This gives the ideal opportunity for using mentoring at its best – where both parties can learn and grow. The mentors can be drawn from a fairly wide pool because in this type of scheme peer mentoring can be as effective as mentoring by more senior managers.

Learners were given the opportunity to attend a 2-day course in mentoring to prepare them for the mentoring relationship. This took place one month after the learners had started their programme.

Verbatim reports from the learners on their experiences in the workplace seem to underline the expected barriers and difficulties:

  • Having to work twice as hard as an able-bodied person to prove yourself
  • Lack of understanding of why the company is offering the learnership and why for disabled people
  • Fear of failure and nobody to talk to
  • A sense that others are asking the questions behind our backs – “Can she deliver – this young black disabled women?”
  • My manager has not been introduced to me
  • Misplaced and not sure which department I belong to – is it HR or Communication?
  • Getting around in terms of transport
  • Not receiving any feedback on work done – is it because I am different. That hurts. I need constructive input so that I can learn.
  • Little social acceptance
  • A sense of being patronised

The learners expressed hopes that their mentors would be able to help them in the following ways (again verbatim):

  • Help me become more assertive
  • Enable me to speak up and out
  • How to develop coping strategies
  • How to take more initiative
  • Improve my communication skills
  • Help me with commitment to my development
  • Assurance and reassurance
  • Build my confidence
  • I would like the mentor to show that they understand that I am capable of doing most things and excel in them
  • Equality and to be treated like others
  • Appreciation for who I am
  • Honest and constructive feedback

It would seem that these hopes and expectations mirror almost exactly those of many people in the workplace.

The training was developed to include aspects of skills for being a mentee as well as aspects of dealing with stigmatisation, prejudice, diversity etc.

Reactions from the learners showed that some significant shifts had been made (verbatim)

  • I’ve learnt to see things in different angles.
  • Listen to other people’s ideas and be supportive.
  • Self-respect.
  • Not to discriminate other people.
  • I’ve learnt how to work with a team.
  • I learned how to trust people.
  • I’ve to gain courage, confidence and ignore things that might be a stumbling block.
  • I learn about my ambition and to motivate other people.
  • To avoid the fear of failure.
  • How to deal with challenges and discrimination.

Reactions from the facilitators were that this group showed great courage and determination, and the facilitators themselves learned a lot about the reality of being a person with a disability.

Once the mentees had been trained in the understanding of developmental mentoring, they were required to identify 2 to 3 individuals who they believed would make a good mentor. This information together with the mentee’s profile was then considered by the coordinator who subsequently approached the respective mentors. This was the matching process and the mentors were then trained. The feedback from the training was that this was a highlight for them and the mentors found it incredibly humbling to think that they had been chosen to assist these individuals with their life journey.

This confirms experience from the UK, where mentor training for disability mentoring schemes have proved to be extremely successful and informative for organisations.[1]  Many mentors described how the relationships with their mentees helped them become more aware of the barriers disabled people faced, not only to employment but in accessing society and community in general. This, in turn, helped them to become better line managers. As a result of their experiences, mentors began to question their work surroundings and policies and procedures. They consistently commented on the resilience and willpower that their mentees displayed in overcoming hurdles.

A key principle of disability mentoring is to mentor the person and not the disability. This is highlighted clearly in the responses of the learners as quoted above – their hopes and fears are the same as those who are not living with disabilities.

This key principle can be generalized also to any diversity issue. That is why mentoring is such a useful tool in the diversity management toolkit. Using mentoring skills, managers and other mentors in an organisation can support people in realizing their potential and can themselves learn about the people behind the “mask of difference”.

“The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Alvin Toffler

[1] See radar.org.uk. Radar is the UK’s leading pan-disability campaigning organisation and runs a successful disability mentoring scheme.