Employers being “smart” on disability

Over at the ILO’s Work in Progress blog, I’ve written about smart employers and disability inclusion. When I worked at the ILO last year they got me a mobility scooter to get around Geneva. If all employers worked this way with disabled employees, it would benefit everyone.

My scooter is an ideal example of this type of adjustment. When my boss asked me if I needed an adjustment, it was clear that it wouldn’t be held against me or disqualify me from the job. There was a dedicated fund for these expenses and we discussed and agreed on the solution together. The small investment meant that I could focus on my work, and it made both my colleagues and me feel good to be working for an organisation that treats its staff this way.

And, there’s also a nice little animation of what we mean by a “Disability Smart” company…

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What does work mean to young disabled people in Bangladesh?

In many countries, employment doesn’t always seem to be an urgent issue for disabled people. But in Bangladesh, which has undergone huge social and economic change over the past thirty-plus years, it most certainly is. The economy is changing for everyone, and young disabled people want to be part of it.

“When I have a job, they don’t think that I’m disabled: they give me more respect.” — Samir

Recent research from Inga Reichelt, based on interviews with disabled people, is impressive and throws light upon this.

As I’ve shared before, disabled people are getting out of charity and into work, the infamous garments sector in Bangladesh is, surprisingly, an employer of disabled people, and there are extraordinary cases of disabled people working like Mosharrof, mechanic and entrepreneur.

Reichelt’s research shows the role work plays in transforming disabled people’s lives, and how they are striving towards it.

First page of policy brief

Reichelt and Yazıcı policy brief. Also available in Bangla.

The brief is based on practical experiences so good at showing real barriers or opportunities. Support of family and transportation come out as vital, and there’re clear examples on the differences between young men and women with disabilities. Once you get to work the problems don’t stop either – both old difficulties and new barriers come around, along with your changing social position.

If you’re interested in employment in Bangladesh or of disabled people in Bangladesh, this brief is worth looking at. You can also contact Reichelt directly at I.J.Reichelt@leeds.ac.uk.

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Travel by Sound: “Blind Man Roams the Globe”

Travelling with a disability is often pretty hilarious, or difficult, depending on your luck and your point of view. But it also means you experience the places you’re in differently. Peter White, a journalist from the UK, has done a series called Blind Man Roams the Globe which has tremendous episodes from Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, and Washington DC.

“Sightseeing and I have never seen eye-to-eye,” he writes in an article introducing a previous version of the series. So his reporting takes a different direction:

Most foreign reportage is someone telling you what they can see: the views, the landscape, the artefacts, the paintings. What I’ve tried to do is let you hear exactly what I hear, as the city introduces itself by sound. When I land at an airport, or a harbour, or cross a border, my ears are instantly tuned to the individual sound of the place – its voices, of course, but also the rise and fall of its music, its street sounds, calls to trade, calls to prayer and just the sounds of a city at work, at play, joshing, arguing, fighting.

Most airports have a depressing sameness. But once you get outside, the individuality of a city’s transport system is reflected in its sounds.

I love public transport; taxis would be easier, of course, but quite apart from the cost, public transport is where you meet people and where you really get ‘the feel’ of the place.

He’s clearly a great traveller, with a sense of humour, curiosity and asking great questions without patronising people. One of his travelling technique is tuning into local radio stations to get a sense of place. Plus in all of the episodes he meets blind people that live in the cities he goes to.

I especially liked when he’s in Nairobi. He shows how Nairobi is different from what is expected in the UK, but not solely in a negative sense. It shows the challenges in that environment, but also people’s creativity in getting around them. And he is pretty astute about how very different material conditions also exist within Nairobi.

White is a great journalist and an important voice on disability. His series on Disability: A New History is well worth listening too as well.

Strangely for a radio show about disability issues, I am not finding a transcript of these episodes.

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What to do when learning Arabic gets intimidating? A Professor’s advice

There are lots of great new posts at Real World Arabic for learners of Arabic at all levels. Not least was this interview with Prof. Wilmsen. Wilmsen learnt Arabic after turning 30 and is now teaching it, writing books about Arabic grammar, etc. So, you know, most learners would see as a tremendous success to do 10% of what he’s done.

And so, in his experience, what are students of Arabic doing wrong that holds them back?

They let themselves get intimated. Everyone is going to find learning Arabic hard. It’s natural.

Hilariously apt description of my current situation. Learning Arabic is hard. Where would you like to begin? Vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation all make it a difficult language for English speakers. Let alone the difference between different types of Arabic, whether dialects or written standard forms. And Arabic is also hard for native Arabic speakers, so you might as well get used to it.

Seems pretty natural to get intimidated then. But you also have to react to that intimidation in a good way otherwise you’re going to be scared off. So use it constructively. Fortunately Wilmsen has a great set of strategies to do so. See the interview and the comments section for his full advice. I take the liberty of paraphrasing and summarising here:

Advice on reacting to the “intimidation” factor

The general points are on an adaptive learning process but one that maintains momentum and progress. Funnily enough, the majority of these broader points are about you, the learner, rather than the language in itself:

  • Go easy on yourself. “Don’t be hard on yourself. Well, you will be, but scold yourself and move on.”
  • Make mistakes. “Studies show that people who are willing to make mistakes make greater progress than those who don’t. And that quality alone is often the difference between a successful language learner and one who gives up.”
  • Don’t try to understand it all. Skim-read newspaper headlines; “only look up words that keep repeating themselves”.
  • Keep track of the progress you’re making. One way to do this is revisting something you looked at before, or watching a film several times over a few months.
  • Keep up your enjoyment and determination. It’s a long road, and you knew this when you started. So you have to be determined, and you also have to find things you enjoy – be they soap operas, talk shows, or whatever. “I just kept plugging at it until I felt that I had it down, and then kept plugging at it.”

These are great points, it is particularly challenging for me to go easy on myself. But I think there’s a bit more. The communities you’re in and the things you learn your new language skills for are really important. So advice that I would add is this:

  • Find the right people. It’s a long hard journey, and you need friends and cheerleaders. Whether it’s people you feel comfortable with and that you can develop your speaking with, or those that encourage/praise you in the right way. Avoid those that make you feel bad, or take the edge off your enjoyment. They might be right, but that doesn’t mean they’re helping.
  • See how learning the language is changing your world. You learnt a word for an idea you didn’t have before. You understand some great lines from a song, or a poem. You’ve talked with someone you could never have talked to before. You made new friends. At the end of the day, these are probably the reasons you’re learning the language, and so are more important than the words you still don’t understand.

My own points are definitely borrowed heavily from conversations with KT in Cairo. (Thanks!)

Wilmsen also has some specific advice for going through the learning process and for classes, too.

  • Work out what’s difficult and address it directly (e.g. practising dills on specific verbs)
  • Start off with practical rather than abstract vocabulary
  • Don’t go too far ahead of what is being taught. (Don’t think I agree with this one! I hate sticking to a fixed route of learning)

And finally, a reminder that the journey is never over:

In any case, language learning is a lifelong project. And I still make mistakes. Just today, I made a mistake in the use of demonstrative pronouns.

Love it. My current speaking is a flood of errors and inconsistencies. I look forward to the day that I can pick them out and name them.

Plenty more in the post itself, so go and look!

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Rethinking Disability in India (Book Review)

Dr. Anita Ghai has written an important overview of disability in India, bringing together her personal experience, activism and academic theory. The context of diversity and development in India is an important background to explore disability.

Rethinking Disability in India by Anita Ghai is an important contribution to understanding the lives of disabled people in India, to disability theory and to a range of social issues within India. Ghai’s work is frank and personal, building on her own biography to ask the ‘most critical questions’ and to deconstruct theoretical divisions. With her extensive scholarship, she brings a mass of evidence in historical, social, policy and analytical terms to understanding disability in India and its relation with different sectors. India gives a rich tapestry to show the multiplicity of the disability experience, and this is one of the key contributions of her book.

See the full review (open access) at Disability & Society.

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Making Business Better for Persons with Disabilities

How can we promote employment of persons with disabilities in low and middle-income countries? This is a big focus of what I’ve been working on recently, especially last year. There’s a very difficult context –

To begin with it seems almost impossible. First off, many employers might not believe disabled people can do the jobs at all, let alone well. Even if you know this not to be the case, the context of social exclusion and inaccessibility makes it hard for disabled people to find work.

But there are a number of things that can be done. Over at Zero Project, Stefan Tromel and I wrote an editorial on Making Business Better for Persons with Disabilities.

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“I never thought I’d work in a factory” – disabled people in Bangladesh’s garments sector

From outside Bangladesh, the garments sector there is probably best known for low wages, poor working conditions and some horrific industrial accidents. But inside the country it’s driven industrial growth and social change. Over 4 million people work in the garments sector, and it has transformed the position of women in Bangladeshi society for better and worse. And it’s also changing the place of disabled people and their prospects for work.

When we looked for employers of persons with disabilities in Bangladesh, we found that garments factories were often the most significant. International buyers played a role in starting this, but since then many factories have taken their own initiatives.

The German PSES project and Bangladeshi NGO CDD have done a nice job of making videos to show us what it looks like. See how employers’ perspectives are totally changed, and disabled people are getting a place in their families, community and the workplace.

We probably wouldn’t have expected to find examples of disability inclusion in a low-wage setting in a low-income setting. But these are examples we can all learn from, both within and outside Bangladesh.

I particularly like how the first video shows people using sign-language over video messages.

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Next steps: arriving in Egypt

One week ago I arrived in Cairo. I’m here to take a few months of an Arabic language course, and then look for work in the region on disability and international development.

Sunset over the Nile, with two pyramids visible in the background.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet brilliant people already, including Helm, an NGO working on disabilty. They hosted a great event on Monday to launch work they’ve done, based on over 300 accessibility audits. During the event they awarded organizations that have been taking on the recommendations. It was fantastic to see a whole range of people in the room, including persons with disabilities, companies, and UN colleagues too.

Oh, and Arabic. I’m learning Egyptian Arabic. It’s hard – this week I did 15 hours of lessons. I am exhilarated and exhausted.

arabic text-book on top of exercise book with arabic words and english translations

Before I arrived, this series of posts on learning Arabic was useful. Based on the recommendation there, I did about 15 hours of study using an audio course from Pimsleur. That helped me with pronounciation and recognising a whole bunch of words. I couldn’t say much without further help, but I recommend the Pimsleur method for getting a head-start before you go somewhere.

There’s plenty more to do and see. I’d love further introductions to nice people, or anyone working on disability or international development here. Please get in touch if you’re here or know people that are!

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My time in Geneva: troubling comforts

Last year there was a big silence on the blogging-front, and other areas of my life, as I got caught up in all the people and pleasures and things to learn from my first posting in Geneva. I had a wonderful time, and look forward to being back soon. But it’s also great to be out of the bubble.

I wrote about the troubling comfort of aid work in Geneva over at WhyDev.

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Lessons from mainstreaming disability in poverty reduction in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, one of the projects I worked on was a project dedicated to supporting poor people in towns and cities across Bangladesh. UPPR was dedicated to supporting three million poor people, and my work was to make sure that that include persons with disabilities. We asked poor disabled people what they needed, looked at changes needed in each area of work, made a strategy document and started some pilot projects. I then left, and was rather guessing that the strategy had been put in a drawer and forgotten.

Going back last year to look at what happened, it was a very pleasant surprise to see the extent that work on disability had been taken up. UPPR has done a range of studies on its impact, and I did one on the extent that disabled people had been included in its efforts for poverty reduction. From communities, field staff and higher levels, there were initiatives for inclusion of disabled people. Over a 1,000 disabled people were supported directly and there were a range of partnerships, including in partnerships directly with disabled people’s organisations. So it turns out that this was an important example of a programme worth over a 100 million USD having a go at mainstreaming disability.

The whole process went through several years, and for many of these I was not involved. After watching from afar and then coming to review at the end, I had a few reflections. We talk about “mainstreaming disability issues”, as if there were a way to just adjust and tweak so that processes become “disability-friendly”. I wonder now whether this was the right goal. It’s super ambitious, and in this case it was one that was received positively, but didn’t have a significant follow-up from management, implementing partners, or the donor. And it left out other factors that seriously affected how much disabled people could or could not benefit from the project initiatives.

There were issues in the project design, implementation and monitoring that affected the way it could respond to all vulnerable groups within its population, not just disabled people. It targeted interventions at the household level – meaning that it couldn’t see so well internal dynamics, like those of gender, or what happens when members of the family have disabilities. A centralised administration was set-up to control & avoid fraud, but this limited the way that communities and staff could respond to localised or differentiated needs. And there was a strong culture of targets that drove implementation but often lost subtlety and attention to process.

I say all of this not to criticise a project that was successful in reaching people all over Bangladesh and delivering a very high volume of support, including to persons with disabilities. I say this as a lesson for people working on disability and vulnerable groups: it’s not just a matter of tweaking disability sensitivity after everything else has been set-up, but really addressing in core processes how it can be dealt with.

The lesson on disability-specific issues are much as one would expect. Information and data is a huge challenge. This means you can’t respond so well to the needs of disabled people, but it also means that even when there is work on disability then it might not come out unless you go looking for it. There’re needs for more explicit targets on disability, resource allocations for them, and awareness and capacity to deal with them throughout implementing organisations. The technical capacity on disability and where that will come from is a big question, as the key UN organizations and donors and government don’t currently have that expertise in Bangladesh. And it will be necessary to implement the new Global Goals, which strongly include disability.

It was nice in this review to see big opportunities for the future. In Bangladesh there is increasing expertise on disability and extreme poverty. You can see another example of the mainstreaming process in Bangladesh at LFTW’s Inclusion Works publication. There’s plenty more to be done, but we’ve got a lot to build on.

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