At more than a billion mark, Persons with Disabilities (PwDs) represent 15 percent of the world’s population. Approximately 190 million have severe forms of disabilities, causing significant difficulties in functioning. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), disability is an umbrella term covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. Seen from a larger prism, disability is not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon. PwDs are among the most marginalised groups, and are more likely to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes.
PwDs encounter a range of barriers like inaccessibility to transport facilities, lack of infrastructural support, difficulty in access to buildings, roads, and markets, unfavourable public attitudes, and societal prejudices. Disabled people often face unreasonable stigma and social exclusion.
Lower-income countries have a higher prevalence of disability. Ninety percent of disabled children in developing countries do not attend school, says UNESCO. The global literacy rate for the disabled is as low as three percent. And very few make it to institutes of higher learning. Limited support infrastructure can have a significant impact on everyday life leading to isolation and depression. WHO now considers disability as a human rights issue and emphasises that people are disabled by society and not by their bodies.
PwDs have also been at an increased risk of contracting Covid-19. Difficulties in practicing basic hygiene, barriers in accessing healthcare, and their own underlying health condition make them extremely vulnerable. The loss of livelihood and disruption in basic services due to strict lockdown measures have further exacerbated the plight of the disabled.
PwDs face challenges in their effort to develop employable skills and in gaining meaningful employment. Globally, the employment rate for the disabled continues to be dismal. Even among those who are employed, a large number are in insignificant occupations. Disabled persons are usually over-dependent on their families for small tasks, which makes it difficult for them to work independently. They are not even trained in basic life skills. Further, negative perceptions about disabled people as co-workers make things worse. The choices that employers make regarding hiring PwDs are often guided by these negative attitudes.
The pandemic has made us realise how technology is reshaping education and economy. Online education, both in the synchronous and asynchronous modes, has the potential to make learning more accessible for the PwDs, without the need to physically navigate remote campuses.
Technology has transformed the world of work. Driven by massive digitisation, work arrangements are getting metamorphosed to give rise to a gig economy. The gig ecosystem comprises freelancers, independent contractors, project-based workers and part-time employees. This signifies that job-seekers can opt for freelancing assignments while employers can select from a geographically dispersed talent pool. The gig economy heralds a new work paradigm by creating job opportunities for socially excluded persons. The changing work topography, manifest in remote working and work-from-home, provides ease for the disabled who are not able to relocate or commute to workplaces.
Work in the gig economy is accompanied by relative freedom, flexibility, and low overhead cost. With a smartphone or computer and access to WiFi, one can readily offer services for employment. While physical and other constraints make it hard to hold down a full-time job in the traditional job market, independently contracted work allows PwDs to participate in meaningful work in the mainstream labour market. With technological aids and assistive devices, it is possible to train and skill this human resource pool to industry needs.
According to a feature in Forbes, we can expect more automation and more jobs in the post-Covid-19 economy. A 2021 report by McKinsey states that about 25 percent of the workforce could continue working from home. Jobs would shift out of large cities into suburbs. In India alone, over 1 lakh tech job openings are clearly on the horizon. The changing work landscape opens up frontiers of possibilities to tap the hitherto untapped talent of PwDs.
Advances in the digital economy are creating unprecedented work opportunities for the disabled, a report by International Labour Organisation says. However, it mandates removing barriers with effective and targeted initiatives for fostering digital skills. Studies have pointed out that costly special facilities and office infrastructure inhibit companies from hiring PwDs. With most work being done remotely now, this may no longer remain a barrier.
In a recession-hit market, it has become difficult for firms to devise a sustainable and robust revenue-generating plan. When an enterprise employs PwDs, the challenge becomes even more gigantic. PwDs’ career plateaus very soon as they are often not equipped to take up more complex assignments. There has to be in place a comprehensive onboarding, training and career development mechanism. Disability-targeted mentoring and sensitisation of co-workers are essential to create an amiable workplace.
With the digital revolution, it has now become possible for PwDs to foray into small business startup and entrepreneurship. Though entrepreneurship has its own challenges, having a personal business may accommodate specific needs posed by the nature of the owner’s disability.
The pandemic and resulting economic shocks have increased the vulnerability of PwDs. As countries continue to battle the pandemic, the disabled deserve to be reassured that their survival and dignity is a priority. The Covid-19 response efforts must be more inclusive to ensure sustainable recovery.
Employment for the disabled provides substantial economic benefits. It increases income and living standards. Employers too gain in the process. Studies have established that absenteeism, employee turnover, and misconduct are lower among PwDs. Retention rates are as high as 85 percent. PwDs are also found to be more productive and engaged at work. This augurs well for inclusive workplaces. Unlocking the potential of this large subset of the global demography will certainly have a transformative effect on the progress of nations. Right to decent work for all has to be more than just rhetoric.
The writer is Professor, Faculty of Management Studies & Research at Aligarh Muslim University