19th January 2022

Promoting a Culture of Belonging at Vodacom: An inside Look into Our DisABILITY Networks

Karen Smit
Principal Specialist: Specific Needs (disability) Products & Services

As Accessibility Lead for Vodacom Group across seven markets in Africa, I ensure that our technology, products and services are accessible for consumers with disabilities.

I’ve always been incredibly proud of Vodacom’s commitment to making sure that disability is not a barrier to working with us or using our products. Diversity initiatives often focus on gender,  LGBTQ+ and race, and disability can get left behind, but here, we see all elements of the diversity puzzle as equal. We pay just as much attention to making our workplace and technology accessible and welcoming to people with disability as for people from any other community.

I’m currently spearheading a number of products and services that cater to consumers with disabilities. We’ve got some very new and groundbreaking initiatives happening around internal inclusion too, and it’s been really exciting to play such a big role in bringing our diversity and inclusion agenda to life.

Looking after consumers living with disabilities

In South Africa, emergency services don’t cater to people with hearing difficulties – most are only contactable via phone or voice. So, three years ago, I led the introduction of two Vodacom emergency services for deaf customers that use text – through SMS or an app. 

I also helped to launch the country’s first big-button, easy-to-use phone for the elderly – the first ever device of its kind in South Africa. We weren’t sure how successful it would be at first, but we’ve now been selling it consistently since 2009. 

Most recently, I’ve been establishing what I call an ‘Africa Accessibility Forum’. With this, I will be driving digital inclusion for consumers with disabilities from all over the continent. My main priority is ensuring that Vodacom Group and Vodafone markets embrace accessibility by implementing inclusive design in all of our products and services offerings. We want to be able to assist disabled customers wherever they are located in Africa, and to give them excellent customer experiences regardless of their challenges.

My own, first-hand experience of the difference technology makes in my life and that of other other disabled people has also inspired me to complete my PhD. I developed a framework for ‘Promoting the Digital Inclusion of Consumers with Disabilities’, an essential for companies wanting disabled persons to access and use ICTs and not be left behind. 

Our DisABILITY Network (DN)

In 2018, I established the first disability employee forum in Vodacom South Africa, a group I have chaired since inception.

Among the first things I did was facilitate the co-creation of our disability policy, a detailed document that covers everything from reasonable accommodation of various disabilities, to disability disclosure. It really addresses all of the important topics around disability inclusion in the workplace.

But what I’m most proud of as leader of the DN is that I’ve developed a safe space for members to openly share their ideas, challenges and successes related to disability. The network has really become a catalyst for change because it’s a place where disabled employees can make their voice heard and be honest about any of their concerns, barriers and success stories. For many people with less visible disabilities (for example, mental illness or learning difficulties), it has even been the first time they’ve ever felt comfortable disclosing their disability to colleagues – and that’s something I find deeply rewarding. When disabled employees openly share without fear, it indicates that our inclusive company culture promotes belonging of disabled employees.

The DN collaborates with other business units and stakeholders to come up with solutions to the challenges brought up. Overall, it’s such a great approach, because it’s important that people with disabilities are part of creating their own solutions. At the end of the day, it’s all about their lived experience (‘nothing about us, without us’).

I must say our HR, IT and Facilities teams have really been fantastic. If we tell them about a challenge and our proposed solution, they will investigate it straight away and in most instances, implement our suggestions. By weaving together as a collective group like this, we are truly creating an increasingly barrier-free workplace.

Walking the talk

I really believe that when it comes to D&I, if you’re not authentic about it, people pick up on that very quickly. You’ll never have an inclusive environment if everybody isn’t genuinely buying into it. The support and personal leadership from our CEO at Vodacom has contributed hugely to embedding a disability inclusion culture within our company.

By giving Vodacom employees a proper platform to participate in freely and honestly – a platform driving real results in terms of breaking down barriers and making things more accessible – we’ve embedded a culturally inclusive mindset throughout the company. We’re not just ‘talking’ diversity and inclusion at Vodacom. We’re really taking action on it, and it shows.

I get managers calling me to ask for guidance on assisting an employee with a disability appropriately, a testament to how willing our people are to keep making Vodacom as inclusive as it should be.

My hope is that the DN will continue to flourish as a valuable stakeholder in every business unit of Vodacom South Africa, and of Vodafone worldwide. It’s positioned to play a bigger and bigger role in encouraging innovation and trusted solutions, whether for our colleagues or our customers, and I am excited to see how much more we can do!