Jay Ruderman once said, “It is not charitable; it is an issue of justice. People who can and should contribute to the workforce should have the opportunity to do so.”
I hope that the words spoken by Mr. Ruderman have caught your attention. Youth with disabilities are amongst the most marginalised, disregarded and indigent among the world’s youth. UNESCO estimates that 98% of disabled children in developing countries do not attend school. Furthermore, 99% of girls with disabilities are illiterate. Consequently, youth with disabilities face dual disadvantages because individuals with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty, even in developed countries.
In Bangladesh, the percentage of people with disabilities demands special attention. The World Bank and WHO estimate the total disability prevalence is about 10%. For children under the age of 18, it is estimated to be around 6%. For young adults above the age of 18 it is around 14%; this corresponds to approximately 3.4 million children with disabilities and around 10.2 million adults with disabilities in Bangladesh.
When I first started working with women with disabilities, we wondered if the entire process of unearthing the minority of students with disabilities across public and private universities would be unfathomable. However, it was bittersweet when we discovered that a modest number of these students already exist in public universities, all across the country and are struggling to make ends meet every day. We then began designing projects that would provide professional skills and helpful resources to these students thus preparing and enabling them to be ready for the job sector. Our project, Women with Disability Development Foundation-WDDF, simply works on the idea that with proper training, counseling, and education we can help youth with disabilities reach better opportunities and succeed in life.
The challenge does not lie here when we provide them vocational training. There are challenges with finding full- time paid jobs. Simply said, our current industry is not entirely ready to provide jobs for people with disabilities. I do not blame them; my past experiences have shown that employers feel hesitant and dubious about the skill level of a disabled candidate. At the end of the day, every business has to be sustainable and I will not be surprised if an employer told me that they are not ready to risk an employer’s salary if they do not receiveat least 80% of his time, energy and knowledge.
When it came down on us to research and advocate for youth with disabilities and their education, work and employment issues, we were groping in an endless abyss. There was not much research and implications conducted to statistically support the disabled and any professional help regarding the matter was too much to ask.
If we consider The World Bank’s data mentioned previously, then in Bangladesh we have around 10 million youth with disabilities. Though there is talk about disability inclusion nowadays, employers are motivated to recruit them, and employers are eagerly looking for the opportunity, we do not see any remarkable results. The current scenario shows that a limited number of disabled youth are getting those jobs. So, millions of potential members of the workforce remain unemployed and this creates a huge problem for society and ultimately for the nation.
A study headed by Physically-challenged Development Foundation-PDF reported that the opportunities are there, but job seekers have major skills gap and the job givers, in turn, have a gap of basic knowledge and appropriate strategies to deal with the disabled community. PDF brings a simple solution through its Institute of Professionals-PIP. PIP is committed to connect those dots between skills and knowledge gap. It simply works to create skilled workforce within the disabled community at the corporate and government level where the potential disabled will be cared for. The question is, why should employers hire more people with disabilities?
Hiring a person with a disability is still viewed upon as an act of charity, but little do employers know that it instills a more socially just environment in the work place. We all know about the concept of division of labour where we pin each employee at a sector that he or she is most efficient in; we can simply apply the same concept here as well. A disabled candidate might be good at a desk job, data input, service, administrative work, facility maintenance, food service, patient care and so on. As it is true for any employee, a candidate with disability on your team will thrive when their roles match their skills.
Furthermore, many times disabled candidates have greater work ethic and skills than common employees. For example, people with disabilities are known to be extraordinary problem solvers, are loyal employees and harbor well defined skills. In today’s business environment, companies need to tap into creative thinking and resourcefulness to drive the organisation forward, and exceptional people have. Employers can diversify the work place so that a wide variety of perspectives are utilised when solving problems thus increasing productivity. Additionally, there will be higher retention rate for workers and employers will gain insights into how to serve customers with disabilities as well. When employers begin tackling the basic issues of access, it forms the foundation for an extensive, mutually beneficial and productive future.
We always want to believe that we are self-aware and sensitive, but it actually takes vigilance to see how our unconscious biases color the perceptions of others. Too many employers will see the inability even before giving the person with disability a chance.
The key point to believe is that people with disabilities are not actually disabled, but are rather abled in a different way. They do not need our sympathy, but they need our help, an opportunity to socially integrate themselves into our communities since they are also a significant part of our economy. If you talk about justice or basic human rights, why is there any necessity to talk about disability in the first place? Especially since it has been repeatedly proven that disability and poverty are intertwined, we must realise that if we do not empower the youth with disability, they will eventually become a burden for their families and themselves. Rather than raising issues that stop employers from connecting themselves with disabled candidates, it is high time that we start filling the gaps these youth face. Think of a day when your highly cross-fingered recruitment of a PWD becomes an inspiration for other employees because of him or her excelling in their work. I believe that day is not far away.
*The writer is the executive and founder member of the Women with Disability Development Foundation.