By Parvinder Singh:
It can be a little unnerving when you are the only employee with a disability in most offices you have worked in during a career that has spanned over one and a half decades (leaving aside a couple of disability organisations). But that’s a story for some other time.
Today, I’d like to pose some questions. When was the last time you came across a person with disability, while negotiating a business deal or presenting your next big idea? What would be your call if you were interviewing a candidate for a job that he or she can do well, but your office is inaccessible, especially if that candidate was qualified for a leadership position, and not the stereotypical handful of jobs earmarked for people with disabilities?
If you are wondering why I am posing these questions, well, it’s high time we answered these, because an entire section of the population is literally missing from work and professional spaces!
Even if we go along with the data of the 2011 Census, about 1.34 crore people with disabilities in India are in the employable age of 15-59 years. About 99 lakh persons with disabilities in the employable age group are either ‘non-workers’ or ‘marginal workers’. This means close to 10 million people with disabilities in the employable age are without a regular source of income and employment!
Coming back to this picture of offices and workspaces devoid of people from an entire social group, one can’t help but think about the deeper challenges that impedes the access of people with disabilities. The lack of workforce diversity and participation by people with disabilities is linked to a number of factors, or simply, no intent to engage with the opportunity of diversity and inclusion, from the level of boardrooms to senior management.
This has led to a very high rate of unemployment among people with disabilities across the world, especially in the Low and Medium Income Countries. Education, employment and health – a lack of access is associated and interlinked with these three key life areas.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006, have established the right to work and employment without discrimination. Yet, one aspect that people with disabilities can vouch for based on their individual experiences, and for which there isn’t a study specific to India, is of how discrimination impacts their chances of employment and even wages.
Global data and studies reveal that even if people with disabilities are employed, they commonly earn less than their counterparts without disabilities; women with disabilities commonly earn less than men with disabilities. The wage gaps between men and women with and without disabilities are thus as important as the difference in employment rates. For example, in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, only half of the substantial difference in wages and participation rates between disabled and non-disabled male workers was attributable to differences in productivity, and empirical research in the United States found that discrimination reduced wages and opportunities for employment.
The impact of discrimination and stereotypes related to performance or lack of expectation in the minds of people is also visible in the limited, or non-representation of people with disabilities at the leadership level and on company boards, etc. A revealing example from India would be the struggle and legal battle that people with disabilities had to undergo to get reservation implemented in the much coveted IAS positions or the Group A and B services as they are called, of the Civil Services. The recent judgement by India’s Supreme Court clears the ambiguity about the intent of the Disability Act (1995), while observing that much of the struggle for people with disability as a social group is unique and historical in many ways.
One must emphasise that the economic inclusion of people with disabilities through employment and earning opportunities is linked to their struggle for equal participation and opportunities.
There is also a direct relation between lack of access to education and health, and employment of people with disabilities. Exclusion from education leads to lack of marketable skills, and hence unemployment, thus reducing the earning potential of people with disabilities. Similarly, lack of access to healthcare services severely limits the ability to find employment, or become self-employed.
There are ample studies that have calculated the economic impact of exclusion from access to education and health. In other words, the vicious circle of disability and poverty, traps people with disabilities. Lack of livelihood opportunities translates into economic loss because of non-employment or reduced employment of disabled people, the cost of health care, social protection, labour market programmes etc. Read this study supported by CBM, which explores in detail, the economic costs of exclusion, vis-à-vis, the gains of inclusion of people with disabilities.
The change towards accepting the right and needs for employment and livelihood for people with disabilities, is slow but there are promising signs of a change in mindsets, employment policies and state schemes.
One such uplifting initiative is of the disability-inclusive organic farming by CBM, which is changing equations on the ground in traditional set-ups by opening up livelihood opportunities for individuals who were seen as a ‘burden’. To understand how that works, you need only read the story of Puneeta, a determined young woman in Deurawa village in Uttar Pradesh, and the sweet taste of her success. Building livelihood opportunities by tapping into rural and enterprise around framing, is an area that needs much greater emphasis and could yield fine results.
What we need is a transformational campaign led by the government and leaders in the private sector, to end the marginalisation of people with disabilities. Changes need to happen across all levels of systems, infrastructure and processes, so workplaces can become inclusive with equal opportunities. Simply said, the barriers that stall diversity and opportunities for all in our offices, workplaces and livelihood generation, must end.
Update: On December 16, 2017, The Disability Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha. It stipulates a two-year jail term and a maximum fine of 5 lakh INR for discriminating against persons with disabilities across all spheres of life. The bill also increased the disabilities covered to 21, to include persons with autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and chronic neurological conditions.
If you’d like to share your experiences of living with disability in India, or thoughts on how we can make India more accessible, please write in and share your views!