Shunned from the public and invisible in the world of work due to various accessibility barriers, People with Disabilities (PwD) already experienced some form of employment hardship prior to the global pandemic. This time around, 15% of the world population who live with disability are facing ever greater challenges sustaining their livelihoods as they are less able to avoid catching Covid-19 and more likely to die from it.
Adding to the worry of contagion, people with disabilities voice concerns on the precarious state of their employment resulting from the impact of Covid-19. In Uganda, a survey of 10,000 persons with disabilities and family members earlier this year showed that 45% of people with disabilities worried about how they would feed their family compared to 14% who worried that they might get infected by COVID-19. These concerns are echoed in the Global Disability Inclusion survey results, which reported that more than half of workers with disabilities said they have either lost their jobs, been laid off or furloughed, or believe they will lose their job in the next 90 days. Only 28% of respondents without disabilities said they have been subject to — or expect to be subject to — such measures.
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Difficulties faced by PwD even before the pandemic
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are approximately 785 million people of working age around the world who have disabilities. These include physical, cognitive, sensory, learning, mental, chronic illness, and autism spectrum disability; each type carries a unique set of challenges in interacting with their environment.
Long before the pandemic, people with disabilities face outsized challenges throughout the employment continuum. The lack of accessibility in infrastructure and workplaces, reasonable accommodations for equal working conditions, and persistent discrimination adversely affect the integration of persons with disabilities into work. As a result, persons with disabilities experience higher unemployment rates and are more likely to be economically inactive than those without disabilities. If they are working, they are more likely to have low-paying, informal and unstable jobs with limited career prospects. Unemployment among the persons with disabilities is as high as 80 per cent in some countries.
There is ample evidence that discrimination negatively affect recruitment decision both for people with visible and invisible disability. Employers are less likely to express interest in job applications from people with disabilities even when their resumés are identical and the disabilities are irrelevant to job performance. A study in Belgium found that the probability of getting invited to a job interview decreased by about one third for candidates revealing a recent year out of work due to depression (compared to the situation of no substantial employment break). The vulnerability continues as research found men and women with disabilities are, respectively, 75 and 89% more likely to experience an involuntary job loss than those without disabilities.
To obtain decent work, inclusive and quality education is crucial. In fact, global evidence suggests an additional year of education can produce a monetary rate of return to schooling of 9.7%. Unfortunately, people with disabilities are falling behind in educational achievement. They are less likely to ever attend school, more likely to be out of school and tend to have fewer years of education than persons without disabilities. They are also less likely to possess basic literacy skills. The literacy gap ranges from 5% in Mali to 41% in Indonesia.
In what ways does this pandemic affect the employment of PwD?
- People with disability, and without work have to rely on aid for food
Disability is both the cause and consequence of poverty. Disability can lead to exclusion from work, education and healthcare, as well as high healthcare and other expenses, which can cause or exacerbate poverty. For those unable to work and earn income during lockdown, this means starvation. “I’m a disabled man and cannot work. I depend on the aid that I receive... If coronavirus doesn’t kill us, we will starve to death inside our houses.” Said Ehsan from Sana’a in northern Yemen, where the Coronavirus has completely collapsed its health system.
- Those who were employed lose their jobs
Persons with disabilities already have a weak position in the market, and a significant portion are in informal employment. Losing their jobs with no social security to cushion their income loss means they are left to fend for themselves. Research in Paraguay estimated that 40% of persons with disabilities in the country became unemployed after the start of the quarantine, with significant impacts on their household incomes. Similarly, in Thailand, when massage parlours were temporarily closed during lockdown, visually impaired people working in these establishments lost their daily income, “I used to earn 300-400 Baht [US$ 9-13] per day, nowadays when the massage parlour is closed, I have no earnings…These days I only eat once a day to save money. I want to work, so I won’t be anyone’s burden.”
- Interrupted learning has far-reaching effects on youth with disabilities
It is not only the current workforce which feels the negative effect of the pandemic on their livelihoods, the disruption of the education system puts children with disability behind their peers who have no disability. Because of school closures, learning is interrupted. In countries where classes resume online, education quality is not guaranteed for children with disability who need support, accessible software, and customised learning materials. This also makes learning more costly for students with disability. Disruption to skills and training programmes are likely to have long-term effects on youth with disabilities who face multiple barriers to entering the workforce.
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The ‘new normal’ of work is not new to PwD
Historically, economic shocks disproportionately affect the employment status of people with disability. The Asian financial crisis in the 1997 and the global financial crisis a decade later left many PwD out of work, not dissimilar to the current pandemic. However, what makes this crisis unique is the sudden normalisation of the world of work previously denied to PwD. A UK survey showed 67% of disabled workers who had asked employers to make reasonable adjustments in their workplace had all or some requests rejected. While the definition of ‘reasonable’ is subjected to the circumstances of the employee and the resources of the employer, they include things such as installing a ramp for a wheelchair user or an audio-visual fire alarm for a deaf person, or allowing someone who experiences social anxiety to have their own desk, etc.
As governments demand citizens to stay indoors to curb the spread of Covid-19, companies move their workforce from the office space into employees’ homes. Working conditions are being adapted around social isolation. Remote and flexible work became the new norm. These adaptations are the same ones that disabled employees have long sought from employers in order to fully contribute to their careers. Before Covid-19, many employers were unwilling to hire PwD because they were not open to virtual work. What this pandemic has exhibited is that people do not have to be physically present to get the deliverables done. This new normal of work has opened up an avenue for organisations to incorporate PwD into their workforce. In addition, many companies are now realising the benefits of mental health care services for employees as their workforce become more isolated and stressed. Now, employee assistance programmes and therapy sessions are gradually being offered by employers.
These adjustments have clearly demonstrated that when it becomes a necessity to adapt working culture and introduce flexible mode of work, the shift for many corporations is possible, and can be implemented within an incredibly short timeframe. Nevertheless, critics cautioned that flexibility at work is not the complete substitute for having an overarching inclusion policy that incorporates accommodation of activities at work, and not just work itself, “Some of the best ways we embed inclusion into culture isn’t through what happens during ‘work’ but what happens on the outer edges. Do we ensure the cafe we frequent at lunch is accessible for example? With less disabled people in a workplace, there is a concern these inadvertent yet critical inclusion lessons could be lost. So the word to leave you with is options. Disabled people deserve no more but no less of them than your able-bodied employees,” urged a disability advocate from Inclusion Moves, Australia.
While flexible work adjustments could benefit people with disability, it is important to understand that this mode of work may not be feasible or affordable for some. Decent connectivity is required for remote work, but it's not the case in least developed countries, where only one in five people use the internet. What’s more, in many developing countries, estimates of the share of jobs that can be performed at home is less than 25%. It can be as low as -5% in countries such as Madagascar and Mozambique. Inclusive work is much more than making working hours flexible and mainstreaming teleconferencing.
From disability to diverse ability: What organisations are missing out when they do not hire PwD
A Global Skills Gap report by QS reveals that that in every continent, adaptability, problem-solving, teamwork, and communication are what employers considered to be the core 21st century skills. These are the skills many PwD already possess, but often times their talent are under-recognised and under-utilised because employers fail to look beyond one disability and into PwD’s diverse abilities. Two distinct voices from different parts of the world shed light on why they believe employers need to harness the strengths of PwD.
“There is ability in disability”, said Michael Showunmi, a physically challenged math teacher from Nigeria. Even while teaching, he went through what teachers that were not living with disabilities went through. He taught for long hours while standing, and sometimes there was no free period. Because of his hard work and creative teaching methods, his students have never failed. In an interview, his student told the reporter what she liked about him, “He’s very considerate and his topics are always vibrant in our memories. His class is always fun, he understands us well. And because of him, mathematics is my best subject.”
In a different continent, a British medical doctor shares Michael’s views. Dr. Hannah Barham-Brown lives with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, but her condition does not limit her ability to care for patients. Instead, her disability allows her to have an intimate knowledge of her patients’ experiences and the systems they are forced to work within. In her TED-Talk, she advocates that PwD are an asset more employers need to harness for their creative problem-solving and teamwork skills: “We [PwD] should be included in the conversation because our skills and our knowledge and our perspectives are invaluable. Every job advert you see will say that a company is looking for problem solvers, people who think outside the box, great team workers. We are nature’s problem solvers, because we live in a world without us in mind. We excel at teamwork because we’re comfortable communicating our needs and making practical assessment of who is best suited to different tasks”.
Photo Credit: Overdoughs PH
Re-imagining the post-pandemic world of work: solutions to enhance the inclusion of PwD at work
The pandemic has demonstrated that it is possible to adapt working practices to accommodate to the new normal. Besides physical modifications to the office premise and equipments, for work to be truly disability-friendly, these two solutions will become crucial as countries navigate their post-pandemic economy.
- Legislative solutions
Laws and regulation pave a strong foundation for organisations to protect and respect the rights of PwD. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which has been ratified by 181 countries is one such legally binding instrument that leads to profound changes in legislation and policies throughout the world. Common legislative measures include the quota system, financial incentives, and non-discrimination laws. For instance, in Thailand, Persons with Disabilities Quality of Life Promotion Act mandates employment quota to promote employment of PwD. The law requires public and private organisations to hire one PwD per 100 able-bodied employees. Financial incentives also complement this measure. Firms can qualify for tax exemption if more than 60% of their workforce are registered as disabled.
- Technology and communication solutions
As this pandemic has proven, technology can play a major role in providing job market accessibility to people with disability, be it through normalising remote work, matching them with the right job, as well as providing career development services. One example is a 6-months virtual Mentorship Program for youths and disabilities in Africa launched by Peniel Foundation, an NGO in Nigeria. The program matches youths with disabilities (Mentees) with highly skilled Professionals (Mentors) both with and without disabilities to help connect them to employment, entrepreneurship, educational achievement and civic engagement leadership opportunities
These solutions are by no means exhaustive. Ultimately, as it is PwD whose 21st century skills are readily available and now highly sought after, companies and policymakers should put them at the heart of solution design. There is a lot that the post-pandemic world of work can learn from people whose world was a series of resilience and adaptation.