Inclusion in India: How our disabled population can be truly integrated into our workforce
Every December, we see a sudden spike in the conversation around disabilities, inclusion, and empowerment of India’s 40 million to 80 million persons with disabilities (PwDs). The current discourse around International Day of Disabled Persons goes a long way to build awareness around initiatives already undertaken by corporates, NGOs, and governments. However, we must also leverage this opportunity to celebrate our success in inclusion, and to highlight the journey that lies ahead of us towards creating a truly inclusive employment environment.
It has been a remarkable year of achievements by our very capable Indian PwDs—Manasi Joshi lifted the Para-Badminton World Championships gold trophy in Basel, Switzerland, while Pranjal Patil became the first blind woman to take charge as an IAS officer.
Visually challenged businessman Srikanth Bolla won an Entrepreneur Of The Year Award. There is the potential for millions more to become the success stories of tomorrow, if allowed the opportunity to live out their dreams. India is undergoing an ecosystem transformation that can enable our PwDs to live independent and fulfilled lives.
Moving from disability to ‘extra-ability’
Disability in India is a very complex issue; it overlaps with other difficult challenges such as low literacy and employment rates, widespread social stigma, and poverty. Children with disabilities are five times more likely to be out of school than the average child. Disabled adults are more likely to be unemployed, and families with a disabled member are often worse off than average. Directly or indirectly, these complexities have resulted in the outcome that PwDs form less than one percent of the Indian workforce.
A key part of the challenge is mindsets and behaviours that persist in society, towards how we view the ‘disabled’ person. For many, a disabled person is someone who is dependent on charity and the assistance of others for survival. They are often not viewed to be ‘productive’, as, historically in India, most disabled persons were confined to their homes and heavily dependent on others.
However, holding on to such a belief is a gross injustice to individuals who have rallied against multiple obstructions to enter our workforce. To become employable these people have overcome not just their physical or mental disability, but have also demonstrated courage, determination, grit and strength of character to get what we would classify as ‘normal’ jobs. For this reason, industrialist Anand Mahindra likes to call such individuals ‘persons with extra-ability’, as they have had to go above and beyond to prove themselves.
Breaking the cultural mould
It has often been said that in India, “disability is not a condition, but a culture”. We live in a society that stigmatises any person who doesn’t fit into what has culturally been defined as ‘normal’. This black-and-white perspective is unique to India. A researcher from Boston University concluded that Indian PwDs remain largely invisible to the rest of society due to lack of accessibility or acceptability in public spaces—they can also be deliberately unseen as people avert their eyes.
This is also true for the job market and our workplaces. Employing people with disabilities is still seen as an act of charity or mandated corporate social responsibility. Most Indian employers tend to believe that employing PwDs does not make for good business economics. However, a study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group, Youth4Jobs, and the Skill Council for Persons with Disability put forth a very compelling business case that debunked this belief. The study involved many companies that employed disabled staff members and analysed their business metrics.
All the companies studied reported higher productivity of PwDs (up to 8-10 percent higher in some sectors), lower attrition rate, and reduced absenteeism. They also reported 2-5 percent increase in their bottom line as a result of these initiatives, higher customer satisfaction levels, and a positive impact on the brand image and goodwill of the company. A great learning from the study is the value of adopting inclusivity as a part of organisational culture of the company and getting buy-in from all levels to support such initiatives.
Role of innovations
Science and technology innovations and assistive devices and tools can go a long way to help PwDs acquire the skills, education, and training they need to become employable and empowered. The joy of an independent, empowered, and fulfilled life should be made accessible to all those who are willing to work. Software companies understand this.
Players like Microsoft, Google, and Adobe have spent a considerable amount of effort in ensuring their tools are developed keeping in mind complete functional accessibility. We are also starting to see scientists, innovators, and entrepreneurs who have developed technology solutions, bring assistive technologies to the Indian market. Innovations like Braille computers, smart canes, bionic arms, mechanised wheelchairs, and many more are now being developed in India by some of our brightest minds — but they need to be supported even further so that these technologies become affordable for the end users, and can scale up commercially.
India is seeing a major movement towards assistive technology solutions for persons with disability. There are over a 100+ startups working on high-impact innovative solutions across multiple disability areas that have the potential to create avenues of access to education, livelihoods, and employment. However, a majority of these startups face roadblocks when it comes to designing sustainable business models, market access and channels to reach to the end users—a critical business requirement that unfortunately remains plagued with limited distribution, lack of service providers, inconsistent user feedback, and scanty funding opportunities.
The bustling amount of activity by startups in this space clearly demonstrates that innovators and entrepreneurs have taken the first plunge of creating inventive, affordable, and user-friendly solutions for PWDs. These innovations now need to reach the end user in a more consistent, sustainable, and accessible manner. The onus is now on corporates, NGOs, investors, and various government agencies to align themselves and build an ecosystem that enables these activities.
We must work relentlessly to bring together various stakeholders and funding agencies, corporations, and NGOs to create truly inclusive employment opportunities for PwDs. Our efforts must include sensitisation and behaviour change among employers, funding of inclusive tools and solutions, and providing a strong ecosystem that can provide easy access to these technologies to the end user. All of this aims to empower the millions who are striving to achieve their dreams. Innovations and entrepreneurship can catalyse and accelerate this mission.
(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)