When is the best time to think about jobs for individuals with disabilities? Is it after we have exhausted all vacancies? Am I the only one bothered by provision of employment for people with disabilities (PwDs)?
There seems to be consensus within the international community that PwDs are disproportionally affected by high unemployment, economically inactivate and have insufficient social protection which further exacerbates their risk of poverty.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 10% of the world population – at least 610 million – are PwDs.
Of these, 386 million between the ages of 15-64 years are unemployed.
Even in the United States (US) with mature and tested democratic credentials, the Department of Labour’s 2018 disability statistics shows that labour force participation of PwDs was 20.2% compared to their counterparts at 69.1%, whilst unemployment rates were 8.3 per cent for people with disabilities against 4.0 per cent amongst those without disabilities.
A household survey on “Living Conditions amongst People with Disability in Botswana” carried out in 2012-2014 amongst economically active individuals who were 15 years and above showed unemployment and economic inactivity being high at 26.5 % amongst male and 36.5% females amongst PwDs compared to their counterparts, with males 39.1% and females at 46.2%.
Whether in developed or developing countries, there are systematic inequalities, unfair discriminations and exclusions of PwDs from labour force participations. These inequalities represent potential GDP loss of between 5-7 per cent according to the World Social Protection Report of 2014-15.
On the other hand, it is a widely held social construct within the disability rights movement that employment opportunities provide a dignifying entitlement, especially in a cash economy where individuals are valued based on income earnings.
In this, context then it can be comfortably argued that employment provide individuals with dignity, self-esteem, self-respect and self-efficacy as it enhances overall economic situation.
In fact, employment of PwDs has dual benefits; to the individual concerned and the economic benefits that accrue from improved skills necessary for social integration.
Employment of PwDs should not only be viewed as a measure to reduce income gaps; but also in relation to reducing gaps in social and psychological streams. Structured jobs have been found to decrease isolation amongst PwDs as they interact with co-workers thus increasing social credit rating and so is individuals’ social value. In this respect, the importance of employment of PwDs cannot be overemphasised given their insular minority status.
It has become more apparent now than ever before that PwDs want to work and contribute to their local communities and the economy. They want to work, pay tax, be regular commuters every morning and graduate from welfare recipients to decision makers in the world of work. But their efforts, expectations and wishes are hindered by existing structural, procedural and societal barriers.
Evidence abounds that employment of PwDs can reduce welfare-related expenditure, more especially disability benefits. This is based on the notion that no government has taken care of any individual for his/her entire life; relief must come to a release, so they say. Moreover, low employment rates amongst PwDs contribute to depressed household income which further relegates people with disabilities to abject poverty. Legislative enactments adopted at international and regional levels in the form of conventions, statutes, declarations, protocols, code of practice, plan of actions and nationally; acts and policies meant to redress the above anomalies have failed dismally.
This stems from the fact that instruments and statutes meant to assure citizens enjoyment of rights such as “right to work” are mostly ratified but hardly domesticated for maximum protection and benefit of individuals.
This perpetuates rights violation and societal attitudes where workers with disability are viewed negatively as unproductive, unfit, slow, intellectually challenged and not deserving an opportunity to express their full potential.
Creating employment opportunities for PwDs seem like an insurmountable task but it requires societal and attitudinal mind-set changes given the demands of the fourth industrial revolution with automation of jobs. There is need for governments to adopt new perspectives that recognises disability as a developmental issue and employment of PwDs as a fundamental right. Other than this then PwDs are more likely to suffer socio-economic challenges than their counterpart.
The above perspective must come in the form of a legislative enactment which will outlaw discrimination based on disability. This will be a deliberate and direct act of giving PwDs civil rights protection like those provided to other citizens on the basis of sex, gender, religion and nationality. The Act must promote and guarantee specific opportunities for training, coaching, supported employment as well as micro-enterprises, entrepreneurship, telework and development of cooperatives.
For equalisation of employment opportunities to be realised, state and private sector need to take up full responsibility and accountability. This includes review of outdated policies and employment-related legislation to be in synch with international best practice. For instance Botswana Employment act defines employment narrowly as “the performance by an employee of a contract of employment” yet the definition has evolved overtime to include three distinct features income; wage for the employed, production; employment providing consumable output and recognition; where employment provides recognition for being engaged in something worthwhile.
In the above instance where employment is recognised as a right and development issue, then specifics like quota systems, opportunities for PwDs to self-employment, return -to -work programmes for workers who sustained occupational injuries during the course of their work, recruitment of workers with disabilities and reasonable accommodation will be encapsulated.
For instance, the South African Employment Equity Act of 1998 has provision for 2% of workforce to be PwDs for designated employers. Can this be tried in the Republic of Botswana as a move to eliminate unfair discrimination and as an affirmative action measure? Certainly yes, but other innovative options need to be explored to redress employment discrimination.
I believe getting PwDs to work will help address other such discriminatory areas as income disparities, public transport and overall built in environment. It’s often said that when you address the rights of one group in society you invariably address the rights of all.
All efforts to redress current imbalances and open up opportunities for active participation of PwDs in the world of work must be guided by key principles; inclusiveness, active participation, social cohesion, human rights, social justice and sustainable development otherwise our civility as a country will come under scrutiny.
*Thuto Tomeletso is writing in his own personal capacity