Rethinking policies to include disabled people into the workforce can help the efforts to address disability in a post-MDG agenda.

Exclusion from the workplace is common among people with disabilities. The failure to include disability into the millennium development goals (MDGs) has meant there is a lack of country-specific data available on disability and employment. However, in 2007 the International Labour Organisation estimated that there are 470 million people of working age with disabilities worldwide, and in 2004, studies by the World Bankshowed that the global value of GDP lost annually due to disability is $1.71-2.23tn.

Though international bodies and NGOs are making significant progress in creating projects that help integrate people with disabilities into employment, education and being economically active, this progress hasn’t translated to employing people with disabilities themselves. The development sector is still seen as very exclusive, where disability, gender and race all present barriers to entering it. The value of bringing a disability perspective into the workforce is not specifically an economic one, but one that can bring a comprehension of disability-related issues and ideas of how to tackle them.

How then can NGOs – and policymakers – address the need for this perspective and at the same time work towards a better conceptual understanding of disability?

Redefine disability

There are misconceptions that exist which imply disability to mean physical limitation. Individuals with disabilities may therefore be perceived as having a social limitation too, and thus they may be inherently prejudged as being less productive and unable to perform a task, such as in employment (see the World Health Organization’s 2011 world report on disability).

The development sector could reconsider its own definition of disability by moving away from seeing it as a medical issue to seeing it as a social issue. The argument is that people with disabilities can help guide NGOs towards making this culture change and this is why their perspective within the workforce is crucial.

“Many influential NGOs have grown up with a medical model and rehabilitation focus, and they have provided services that have been of real help to many people. With the welcome change of ethos in international development and disability, some of the very big NGOs have real challenges in reorienting from this model towards a more social and human rights perspective” says Malcolm MacLachlan, professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin, who has also carried out extensive research into disability and poverty. “For them, it is a challenge of organisational culture change, with many, understandably, still wedded to the familiar old model.”

Rethink policies

report published last year and co-written by MacLachlan, showed a poor level of references to disability in the health policies of a select few international bodies, including the Department for International Development. Though it’s not necessarily indicative of the likelihood of an organisation employing people with disabilities, those that have more references to it in their policies are more likely to be at least thinking about the issue.

“While the number of times disability is mentioned in a policy is important with regard to recognition; it’s the extent of commitment to action in the policy – and its monitoring and evaluation – which is crucial for realising rights” says MacLachlan. “The number of people with a disability actually employed by organisations, and the sort of work they are doing, are critical tests of any policy of inclusion at work.”

Rethinking policies to systematically include people with disabilities can also help the efforts to mainstream the issue into a post-MDG framework.

Commit to digital media

Embracing technology not only creates more fluid dialogues with diverse communities, but it could also help in redefining disability.

“The more NGOs engage with digital media the more likely they are to realise that ability is in ideas and innovation, not simply in physical mobility” says Libby Powell, co-director of Radar, a media development programme that has been training people in low resource environments, including those with disabilities, to become citizen journalists. “The digital world is a far more level playing field for those who are active and engaged. And the disability networks are making full use of that. It is also a channel for holding NGOs to account over how inclusive they are”.

The hope is that the more NGOs include digital tools in their work the more they will think about the need to bring a disability perspective into their workforce. Committing to adopting digital media can foster a greater sense of shared identity, encourage flexibility and ensure every voice is heard, Powell says. It could also lead to a commitment to employing people with disabilities where policies might be failing.

Change attitudes

Failure to bring a strong disability perspective into the workforce of international bodies and NGOs within the next few years could hamper the post-2015 agenda. As debated by the UN high level panel, the process of integrating people with disabilities into the workplace is without doubt a strenuous one, and more so in developing countries where efforts to include them can be made more complex by a network of wider problems such as poverty and a subsequent lack of access to services.

By rethinking attitudes towards disability those working in the development sector – and policymakers – can be progressive in bringing a disability perspective into their workforce that isn’t just to meet equal opportunities quotas.

By Rich McEachran