Disability and Inclusion in the Cyprus workplace

Before any space is made accessible to new members, there is usually a vetting procedure. And when it comes to the workplace in particular, applicants must display an array of relevant qualifications and experience. As part of the process, they also have to frame and ‘explain’ any lapses or gaps in their professional trajectory, assuring they will not interfere with carrying out the tasks associated with their desired position.

But how (and why!) should you ‘explain’ disability? How do you demonstrate disability is no barrier to professional performance, when access is guarded by closed-mindedness and prejudice? How do you find entry-points to the world of work, ideas and people, in a culture that still inherently believes the disabled – or, indeed, anyone ‘different’ – should be kept apart from the familiar and the ‘acceptable’?

We put these questions to Dr. Marianna Pafite, an academic and dedicated Equity, Inclusion and Diversity (EID) advocate in Cyprus in the latest Careers Express interview.

Pafite was born and raised in Limassol; at the age of 18 she entered the University of Cyprus where she read Byzantine and Modern Greek Literature, receiving her PhD in 2014. At the age of 23 she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, propelling her to becoming a rights activist, as well as co-founder of Neofytos, a disability cultural organisation, whose programmes aim to eliminate the social exclusion of people with disabilities.

What follows are edited highlights of what Pafite had to say about diversity in the Cyprus workplace, barriers to inclusion and how we can address these issues.

Regarding Equity, Inclusion and Diversity, in many Cyprus businesses it’s beginning to take hold, but still has room to improve. So, what’s changed so far?

“I am not sure we can talk in general about Cypriot businesses and inclusion; we can certainly talk about foreign companies in Cyprus that do adopt an inclusive approach towards diversity. I cannot say the same for local businesses due to lack of education.

How did the pandemic in particular impact the topic of inclusion in the workplace?

“Worldwide the new method of [remote] working proved that we can include, especially, the disabled. I consider myself one of them because I was to lose my job due to my disability and restricted mobility. Fortunately, Covid gave me the chance to work from home and become an active citizen.

“When it comes to the public service, there are some inclusive measures towards the disabled, but we still don’t have the legal framework to include the disabled in the public sector.”

What actions do employers need to implement and embrace diversity?

“It is a matter of culture; it is always about culture. Working is a human right and we, as members of the disabled community, are fighting for this right. If Cypriot businesses embrace diversity, they will all gain benefits as other global organisations do.

“Diversity includes all dimensions, covering people facing different types of difficulties at different stages in their life. Here, I am referring to young mothers, pregnant women as well. I believe in Cyprus we are also ageist and we do not include the elders, which is a problem, too.”

So, why do we still find that in many cases business only pay lip-service to inclusion? In other words, what is the mindset and values that drive a truly inclusive culture?

“It’s a mindset that a society has to gain. We are at the beginning of conquering this mindset, but still witness parents fighting to include their disabled children with the other students in the same classroom.

“When it comes to the workforce, we are not still ready to accept that the disabled can offer and contribute to become active citizens in this society. I reiterate that we can offer and contribute if we have the support we need.”

Groups that come under diversity and inclusion include the physically disabled. What are the types of discrimination this demographic faces in the workplace, and how can we combat them?

“It is sad that people on a wheelchair as a result of an accident are privileged in Cyprus in all fields concerning disability. Because, as a society, we are afraid of diverse people with mental health and psychological differences, having to do with the mind and soul. Until now we have institutions to exclude this category of people.

“We have to embrace neurodiversity; this is a huge circle of diverse groups that we need to accept and employ.

“Also, in a society where people get old and health problems become an issue to the current workforce, we need to adjust, otherwise we will not have the workforce we need.”

With your permission, I’d like to ask you: how has diversity played a role in your career?

“Until the mobility restrictions came to my life, I was an active academic and actress travelling around the world gaining knowledge and experiences. When my physical limitation came, I was shut out from all the areas of my work. What followed were three years of my silence to understand the things that matter in my life, which of course include literature and theatre. So, I decided to quit my scientific studies in Renaissance and Cretan literature, and use literature as a means to develop empathy. Empathy is much needed by the doctors, personnel of the healthcare sector, much needed by society, in order to accept diversity.

“As far as the theatre is concerned, at Neofytos, my associates and myself, together, we decided to bring the story of my life to the stag – we brought disability theatre to Cyprus, something unknown in the island. We are trying to prove that it is important to engage the disabled in all fields of life: whether it’s financial, cultural, and so on, and to gain a different spectrum and perspective. It is a matter of enriching ourselves, to get richer as a person. I, myself, got richer coming across a different disability than mine. It is a matter of enriching our mind and soul.”

Can you give us some examples of diversity success stories?

“It was amazing to read recently about a young blind Cypriot man who is working at Google. I wonder, if he had to work at a Cypriot business, would they be able to see his talent and genius? We are still afraid of disability and we don’t easily give such individuals a chance. So, it’s really amazing to have a Cypriot blind man working for Google!

For younger jobseekers who come under the diversity umbrella, what is your advice for making the most out of their career journey?

“I would like to underline that, in a fair society, disabled or diverse persons should not need to prove themselves to take a job. In Cyprus, we have to prove our capabilities to businesses. I would advise young people [under this umbrella] to create their own business instead of trying to persuade local businesses about their competence. We have examples of disabled people creating start-ups; there are few, but we do find them in Cyprus.”

The current research is clear: Millennials and Gen Zers consider workplace diversity and inclusion as a major factor in any job decision. In light of this, how would you say these two generations will change Cypriot work culture?

“I am convinced that this new generation is already familiar with disability, or all other different situations in a life of a person. The youngest do not have the taboo or narrow mind concerning the disabled. So, hopefully they will embrace diversity better than the previous generation, and create a Cyprus we can be proud of.

“I would like to invite everyone to talk to the disabled and get to know them better. We live in a world of diversity and we need to understand and accept it.”