Ana Patricia Espejo pets guide dog Camila
Teleservices worker Ana Patricia Espejo pets guide dog Camila © Nacho Hernandez, for the FT

It seems at times as if Rebeca González Mancebo has a superpower. Answering telephone calls to the Madrid government’s citizen information helpline, she can follow what two voices are saying at the same time — the caller, and an ultra-speeded-up spoken-word version of the information on her computer screen.

The reason for this juggling act is simple: González Mancebo is wholly blind and this is how she works. Ana Patricia Espejo, the woman working next to her in the call centre, is also completely blind and is accompanied by her guide dog, Camila.

The teleservices business for which they work employs more than 1,300 people with disabilities out of a total workforce of around 4,000. The business is part of the Ilunion group, which boasts that it is the world’s chief employer of people with disabilities: they now represent 40 per cent of its total staff of more than 37,000, and the majority of its board of directors and management committee.

Ilunion, whose businesses include services such as cleaning, security and laundry as well as a hotel chain and call centres, is unabashedly a commercial enterprise, with turnover approaching €1bn.

“Our goal is to provide a better quality of service than our competitors so we can win contracts and provide work,” says González Mancebo.

The group has been hit hard by the pandemic, which reduced demand in the sectors on which it depends, such as tourism and corporate offices. But Ilunion — which ranks 61st on the latest FT-Statista Diversity Leaders list — is raising its ambitions nonetheless, and plans to increase diversity further in its workforce.

It argues that technological advances and a growing consciousness of the importance of diversity should lead business, as a whole, to employ more people with disabilities.

Ilunion’s bet is that its model is one that other companies will follow.

“The technology makes work easier, but I think the awareness that things are changing — that companies are not going to just be about profit maximisation but about delivering a return to society as a whole — that is even more important,” says Alejandro Oñoro, Ilunion’s chief executive, who has been partially blind since childhood.

“One of our maxims is to be present in sectors that are labour-intensive, so that we are better able to create work.”

He singles out the laundry sector in Colombia, into which Ilunion has recently expanded: more than half its almost 300 employees there have disabilities, many of them deafness.

At present, among Ilunion’s 15,000 employees with disabilities, 55 per cent have some form of physical disability, 25 per cent a learning difficulty, 11 per cent hearing difficulties, and the remainder have difficulties with their sight.

Ilunion’s chief executive Alejandro Oñoro
Ilunion’s chief executive Alejandro Oñoro © Nacho Hernandez, for the FT

Ilunion is owned by Once, the National Organisation of Spanish Blind People. But, unlike Once, Ilunion — which was formed as a corporate entity in 2015 — is a for-profit organisation.

Oñoro says the group’s performance will bounce back this year after a €54m operating loss in 2020, and that Ilunion’s model is to reinvest 100 per cent of its profit.

He argues that profitability is necessary for sustainability — and for enabling Ilunion to act as a role model.

Under its 2021-2025 plan, the group wants to increase the 40 per cent of its workforce represented by people with disabilities to 45 per cent, but also to include other groups at risk of exclusion, such as victims of gender-based violence, immigrants and the homeless.

Ilunion’s headquarters, in the north of Madrid, reflect the group’s priorities. The building is easily accessible to people with disabilities; a specialised phone app guides staff around the building; doors open automatically; a magnetic loop system helps the hearing-impaired.

A Braille keyboard aids the work of staff such as Javier García Pajares, a member of Ilunion’s legal team. Oñoro talks to him by finger spelling on the palm of his hand.

“Here we don’t talk about working with people with disabilities,” Oñoro says. “We bet on talent, independently of someone’s condition, or their age, their culture, or their sexual orientation.”

The same philosophy applies at the group’s 28 hotels, which emphasise the importance of accessibility for customers as well as for staff. “If a room is accessible, it doesn’t mean that it should seem like a hospital,” says Beatriz Rubio, the hotels’ head of accessibility. “It also has to look good.”

She highlights simple features such as easy-to-use telephones and bedside tables with lips that prevent spillage, as well as sensors to detect bathroom falls, and room buzzers that turn on a light when someone is at the door.

As is the case with many of its other practices, Ilunion’s aim is not to stand out from the crowd, but to encourage more businesses to follow suit.

“When people come from elsewhere and we tell them what we are doing, they like it,” Oñoro says. “And when we see other groups following these good practices, that shows we are on the right track.”

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