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Where are the aid workers with disabilities?

Where are the aid workers with disabilities?

This is the first in a three-part series on development workers with disabilities. Check back next week for the second installment!

By Rebecca Berman

Even though people with disabilities make up 15% of the world’s population, with 80% living in developing countries, they are rarely part of the international development agenda (or haven’t been until recently). As disability issues are becoming more prominent – especially with post-2015 discussions – valuable opportunities exist for people with disabilities to take ownership and showcase their expertise. WhyDev has already featured articles about the lack of inclusion of people with disabilities in international development programming. However, there needs to be more discussion about another equally important issue.

Where are the people with disabilities who work in the development and humanitarian aid sectors?

Around the world, people with disabilities face higher unemployment rates than those without. Nearly 90% of people with disabilities in developing countries are unemployed, and 50 to 70% in developed countries. Why do people with disabilities have a higher rate of unemployment? The obvious reason for this is due to pre-existing stigmas. Two others, particularly related to the development context, include:

“It’s too expensive.” / “We already have limited resources.”

Cost is often cited as a barrier for not hiring people with disabilities. In the development field, organisations are often working with limited resources and with an extra sense of urgency in using every last dollar.

But, according to estimates in UNICEF’s 2013 State of the World’s Children report, including people with disabilities costs less than 1% of a program’s total budget. In addition, a study in the U.S. found that two thirds of disability accommodations cost less than $500, with nearly a quarter at no cost. Examples of cost-free accommodation include adjusting tasks or schedules for maximum performance efficiency.

“The accommodations or medical care are not available overseas.”

People with disabilities are, unfortunately, used to inaccessibility. Thus, we have the knowledge and resources to create better systems and to increase accessibility. We know what works and what doesn’t. Many times, disabilities are barriers to joining the Foreign Service and the Peace Corps (or similar programs). In the end, if a person with a disability is applying, they will have the resources to overcome the anticipated barriers that the job entails. For instance, a person who uses a wheelchair would be more likely to know the best mechanisms for upkeep and repair in a development setting. The dialogue needs to center on how the person’s needs can be met on the job, rather than perpetuating the status quo by continually excluding those with disabilities and viewing disability as a medical condition (rather than utilising the modern social model of disability, which views it as being an effect of how society is organised, rather than the person’s “impairment” or “difference”).

The vicious cycle of inaccessibility and invisibility

I have seen firsthand the social capital cost of exclusion. For instance, international development conferences are often not interpreted. By not having a sign language interpreter, a segment of the community loses out on learning and networking opportunities. In addition, the “voice” of people with hearing loss is missing from international discussions, which perpetuates their invisible minority status. Similarly, language classes often do not provide interpreters, limiting deaf students’ opportunities for learning foreign languages, which are crucial in the aid sector.

The same can be said for discriminatory medical requirements that prevent people with disabilities and/or other medical conditions from participating in international jobs. These definitions and the link between disability and medicine/illness is a highly contentious one. Regardless of the person’s identity (as a “person with a disability,” a “person with a medical condition,” etc.), based on their “symptoms” or perceived inabilities, they are often lumped together in the eyes of human resources.

This is not to say that these policies should be thrown out entirely. Rather, we need to consider the actual reason for the exclusion, and not just accept this as the “norm.” For instance, is the reason because there are actually no accommodations that can be made, or is it because of pre-existing conceptions that exist in-country? If people with disabilities don’t get hired due to their “condition,” the condition stays invisible, and no real progress can be made in changing the situation for those with similar conditions.

In addition to my own experience as a Deaf person, there are plenty of stories about internal hiring and firing biases against people with disabilities and medical conditions, including from agencies and organisations that claim to support those with disabilities. Change like this is a complex evolving process, and the first step is creating visibility.

A Post-2015 World

Since 2007, 159 countries have signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 27 focuses on employment and aims to “Promote the employment of persons with disabilities in the private sector through appropriate policies and measures, which may include affirmative action programs, incentives and other measures.” As we move towards more equity-based post-2015 goals, this will be important for all people, regardless of background.

Rebecca Berman is a Mosaic International Fellow in Tanzania, where she is coordinating an inclusive education program and supporting other initiatives for children and young adults with development and intellectual disabilities. She has previously worked with Handicap International and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and has provided self-advocacy training in the U.S., Kenya, Guatemala, India and Ghana. You can follow Rebecca on Twitter.

Featured image shows multiple sign language interpreters for multiple languages at the EMPOWER Conference. Photo from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs.

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  12. Michael O'Toole

    Are people who develop disabilities while in employment icluded in the figures or just those who have disabilities when they are first employed.

    1. That is a really good question! My guess is that with the data it tends to look at when people are first employed. But this would be a good question to ask- especially in regards to continuing employment if a disability is developed on the job.

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