What type of matchmaking do we want? Linking disabled people and employers (part 2)

Last week I wrote about organisations in India that are working to get disabled people into employment. In this second post, I’ll write about the way the work they do is a different from business-as-normal in the disability sector in this part of the world. Rather than giving everyone assistive devices or never-ending rights-based work, they find individual solutions to individual problems. And they manage to do that through partnerships, rather than trying to provide all the solutions themselves.

Working with individual cases rather than a rights perspective. In these conversations people didn’t mention rights as such. Of course the ideology is based on that, but in practice people are negotiating and shifting things at a much more individual level. When working with building the ability and aspiration of a disabled person you have to challenge what they’ve taken for granted and the position they’ve given themselves. When convincing an employer you can use a bunch of reasons to show them why they themselves will benefit from employing a person with disability.

One of the methods used was in fact avoiding making disability special, but rather “constantly drawing parallels” – that we all have inabilities and disabilities, that changes we have made for one group we might make for another, that we all are using assistive devices in some way, etc. I found this uncomfortable – it disturbs me when we go down the “we’re all disabled” line. From a political point of view I want to point out we’re certainly not all disabled. When we speak about disability I understand someone with an impairment who faces social or other barriers to participation – their disability may, say, have resulted in them not going to school at all. This is a disability that’s very different from someone who happens to be a bit tall, or have a vision problem that they fix by wearing glasses – these people haven’t faced social barriers because of their physical characteristics.

The important lesson here is that working with companies might be more about resolving things on an individual level rather than using systematic rights frameworks. Saying that we are “all disabled in some form” is a way to change the way that companies treat specific individuals. It creates solutions on an ad-hoc basis for the people that are there in front of you. It’s not about making businesses remove all the ways they discriminate against disabled people, but rather about getting a business to hire a few people, work with them and change a little bit, hire a few more people, change a bit more. Rather than frightening companies with the list of things that need to change (policies, recruitment, infrastructure, work-flow, etc), it helps them work out how to change on a case-by-case basis and let them figure out the wider consequences later. This doesn’t change what we know needs to be done, but it does change the way we go about trying to get it.

Working through partnerships. When one has gotten used to organisations that focus intently on doing their own thing, just looking at Enable India’s list of partners is enough to make one’s jaw drop. Government, non-government, private institutions – they’re all there. As they pointed out to me, inputs from any one organisation are just a small part in a person’s life – several organisations will have to come together to make a larger difference. Many difficulties come with partnership, but partnership is necessary to getting the work done.

An essential part to the relationship building is engaging with partners on their own terms. Part of this is to do with perspective – as we’ve seen, you need to work with the perspective of companies rather than impose an agenda. Another part of the engagement is working with companies at various levels – convincing the management, giving them examples of successful inclusion, working on a practical level to redesign jobs and providing qualified candidates. This means that even though work is done on a case-by-case basis it promotes change across the company. When that relationship of trust develops you can, over time, gradually increase the scope for inclusion of disabled people and the extent to which a company treats this systematically.

Bonus question – what type of organisation do we need to deliver these services? If these mediation services are different from business-as-normal in the disability sector, how do we go about promoting them? NGOs like Enable India or LCD have an important role here. Disabled people’s organisations in practice do provide linkage with employment, and in some cases have the persistent, dedicated approach that’s necessary; they might need to develop their ability to support businesses better, though. In Sri Lanka, the Employer’s Federation Network on Disability does similar work. Very interestingly, v-shesh is a for-profit company working in this sector. Their business-plan is based on the idea that they are providing goods for both disabled people and for employers, and that once both sides have realised what these goods are worth they will pay for them. It will be fascinating to see over the next few years whether they’re successful in creating the market that is – in theory – there.

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