A new UK aid funded programme directed by Sightsavers in collaboration with various cross-sector partners, has set out to overcome employment barriers which prevent millions of people with disabilities from accessing employment. To learn more, AidEx spoke to Simon Brown, Technical Lead for Economic Empowerment for the programme known as Inclusion Works.

An estimated one billion people around the world – fifteen percent of the population - live with disabilities, making this group the world’s largest minority. Of these, eighty percent live in developing countries.

Launched in July 2019, Inclusion Works is a three-year programme led by Sightsavers alongside ten partners, piloting new ways to create job opportunities for people with disabilities in Kenya, Uganda and Bangladesh by working with one hundred private and public employers.

What has held people with disabilities back?

Widespread societal stigma has played a significant role in the marginalisation of people with disabilities. Underpinned by cultural and religious beliefs, misconceptions such as disability being a product of punishment or bad luck, have fostered prejudice, discrimination, shame and abuse.

Self-limitation derived from marginalisation has held people with disabilities back from utilising the opportunities that exist, like job roles specifically designed to be inclusive. Growing up with assumed limited capacity nurtures a lack of confidence in skills and ability, ultimately diminishing aspirations.

Brown comments, “It is often a case of people having the right qualifications, but not applying to those companies which are trying to be inclusive”. The disconnection within this supply and demand relationship he continues, “means there are people with the right skills, but companies have to go the extra mile to find them. We want to understand why this is the case”.

A dearth of data has been another crucial factor in preventing progress in this area. There is a combination of people either not self-identifying as disabled, or their families not identifying them. The absence of statistics and tracking tools has in turn inhibited comprehensive reporting on programmes supporting people with disabilities. Meanwhile, implementation of policies like employment quotas and education systems have lacked enforcement and have had scarce representation as a result.

Informed, collaborative approach

With more data and definitions required, Inclusion Works has set out to gain a comprehensive picture of the labour market. The questions driving these assessments seek to discover how companies and employers articulate their demand for people and skills, how this connects with the labour market, how those skills are supplied, and how they link back to demand. Labour market assessments involving progressive conversations with government departments and employers so far have caused Sightsavers and the team to question their assumptions:
“We are beginning to understand there is an interest from employers to be more inclusive but there are these barriers preventing this. We are learning how best to work together to come up with solutions to smash these barriers”, says Brown.

Whilst the programme aims to get over 2,000 people with disabilities into employment over the next three years, the approach is principally about system change as opposed to the traditional individual-to-individual basis. Brown asserts, “it is about how we can go about changing parts of the system that can then be replicated on a wider scale later.”

The powerful ability to fail

Historically the approach between the private and development sector has been confrontational, but collaboration is key to moving past any mistrust. Companies like Safaricom in Kenya have been exemplary pioneers in demonstrating how a philanthropic social responsibility initiative can evolve from sympathetic, to strategically advantageous and meaningfully inclusive.

Inclusion Work’s method will be iterative, where constant action learning throughout the cycle allows for trial and error. As a new kind of programming for the sector, there is a “natural risk of failure”, Brown says, “but we have to accept some of the things we try will fail, so long as we can rapidly learn why in cycles of learning.”

Brown refers to a comment made by a programme manager in Kenya who said she felt, “disability now is at a point where gender was in the 1990s”. The Washington Group definitions demonstrate disability is becoming more of a priority issue with an ambition to do positive work, but much more work is required if we want to attain high quality statistics so that we can ensure all country censuses have a definition and approach encouraging the identification of disabilities.

Whether the research finds it is systems that need to be more inclusive, or people with disabilities who need to know how to better interact with the system, Inclusion Works is aware it can only be successful if every step of the way is directly informed by voices from the very people who should be benefiting from it. This is precisely why the programme works through disabled people’s organisations on the ground, through the International Disability Alliance with Sightsavers’ support.

Nothing about us, without us, indeed.