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People with disabilities (PwDs) represent 15 percent of the world population with more than a billion marks. Approximately 190 million people have severe forms of disability that lead to significant dysfunction. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), disability is an umbrella term for impairments, activity restrictions and restrictions on participation. From a larger perspective, disability is not just a health problem. It’s a complex phenomenon. PwDs are among the most marginalized groups and tend to have negative socio-economic consequences.
People with disabilities face a number of obstacles such as inaccessibility of transport facilities, lack of infrastructural support, difficulties in accessing buildings, roads and markets, unfavorable public attitudes and social prejudices. People with disabilities often face unreasonable stigma and social exclusion.
Lower-income countries have a higher prevalence of disability. 90 percent of disabled children in developing countries do not go to school, says UNESCO. The global literacy rate for the disabled is only three percent. And very few make it at universities. A limited support infrastructure can have a significant impact on everyday life and lead to isolation and depression. WHO now regards disability as a human rights problem and emphasizes that people are handicapped by society and not by their body.
PwDs also have an increased risk of developing Covid-19. Difficulties in performing basic hygiene measures, barriers to accessing health care, and their own underlying health make them extremely vulnerable. The loss of livelihoods and the interruption of basic services through strict lockdown measures have further exacerbated the plight of the disabled.
People with disabilities face challenges when it comes to developing usable skills and finding meaningful employment. Globally, the disability employment rate remains grim. Even among the gainfully employed, many are employed in insignificant occupations. Disabled people are usually too 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. In addition, negative perceptions about disabled people as employees worsen the situation. The decisions employers make about hiring PwDs are often guided by these negative attitudes.
The pandemic has made us aware of how technology is transforming education and the economy. Online education, both in synchronous and asynchronous modes, has the potential to make learning more accessible to PwDs without them having to physically navigate remote locations.
Technology has changed the world of work. Driven by massive digitization, working agreements are being transformed into a gig economy. The gig ecosystem includes freelancers, self-employed contractors, project-based workers, and part-time workers. This means that job seekers can choose to work as a freelancer, while employers can choose from a geographically dispersed talent pool. The gig economy heralds a new work paradigm by creating employment opportunities for socially excluded people. The changing work topography manifested in remote and home working provides relief for those with disabilities who are unable to move or commute to work.
Working in the gig economy is accompanied by relative freedom, flexibility and low overhead costs. With a smartphone or computer and access to WiFi, one can easily offer employment services. While physical and other limitations make it difficult to hold a full-time position in the traditional labor market, self-employed employment contracts enable PwDs to participate in meaningful work in the general labor market. With technological aids and aids, it is possible to train and qualify this personnel pool for the needs of industry.
According to a feature in Forbes, we can expect more automation and more jobs in the post-Covid-19 economy. A report by McKinsey from 2021 said about 25 percent of the workforce could continue to work from home. Jobs would be relocated from the big cities to the suburbs. In India alone, over 1 lakh tech vacancies are clearly in sight. The changing work landscape opens up new opportunities to tap into the previously untapped talent of PwDs.
Advances in the digital economy create unprecedented job opportunities for the disabled, according to a report by the International Labor Organization. However, it calls for the removal of barriers through effective and targeted initiatives to promote digital skills. Studies have shown that expensive specialized facilities and office infrastructure prevent companies from hiring PwDs. With most of the work now being done remotely, this may no longer be an obstacle.
In a recession-hit market, it has become difficult for companies to develop a sustainable and robust plan for generating revenue. When a company uses PwDs, the challenge becomes even more gigantic. The career plateaus of PwDs are reached very quickly, as they are often not equipped for more complex tasks. There must be a comprehensive onboarding, training and career development mechanism in place. A disabled-friendly care and sensitization of the employees is indispensable for the design of a friendly workplace.
With the digital revolution, it has now become possible for PwDs to break into small business creation and entrepreneurship. Although entrepreneurship has its own challenges, the existence of a private business can cater to specific needs arising from the nature of the owner’s disability.
The pandemic and the resulting economic shocks have made PwDs more vulnerable. As countries continue to battle the pandemic, the disabled deserve the reassurance that their survival and dignity are a priority. Actions to respond to Covid-19 need to be more inclusive to ensure sustainable recovery.
Employment for the disabled offers significant economic benefits. It increases income and standard of living. Employers also benefit from it. Studies have shown that absenteeism, employee turnover and misconduct are lower among PwDs. The retention rates are up to 85 percent. PwDs are also more productive and engaged at work. This bodes well for inclusive jobs. Unlocking the potential of this large subset of global demographics is sure to have a transformative effect on the progress of nations. The right to decent work for all must be more than just rhetoric.
The author is a professor in the Faculty of Management Studies and Research at Aligarh Muslim University