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What is the future of work for persons with disabilities?

As the working landscape shifts to a more flexible, remote and less traditional one, let us explore what it means for people with disabilities. Pictured: A man at a desk in an office cubicle

As the working landscape shifts to a more flexible, remote and less traditional one, what does it mean for people with disabilities? Image: EnableIndia

Shanti Raghavan
Founder, Enable India
Dipesh Sutariya
Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, Enable India
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • As the working landscape shifts to a more flexible, remote and less traditional one, what does this mean for people with disabilities?
  • Persons with disabilities need inclusive mainstream employers and enabling with technological adaptations, as well as access to creative, gig and entrepreneurial work.
  • It's time to unlock the hidden jobs buried in the purple sector – purple being the colour of disability.

What do a quality analyst, digital marketer, service manager, full-stack developer, tech founder, cyber cafe owner, grocery store owner, YouTuber, artist, accessibility tester and caregiver have in common? They all represent mainstream, entrepreneurial, creative and “purple sector” jobs, already being done by individuals with different types of disabilities, including severe and multiple disabilities. They also represent the areas of work unfolding for persons with disability (PwDs) in the future.

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What does the future of work look like for people with disabilities

As the working landscape shifts to a more flexible, remote, and less traditional one, let us explore what it means for people with disabilities. What does the future of work look like for them and how do we prepare them for what is to come?

1. Inclusive mainstream jobs

Laila* is a star performer at one of the most profitable staffing companies and mentored for career growth by none other than the managing director. Her role requires frequent travel to various client sites. Laila is a person with vision impairment.

At the height of the 2008 recession, Alok, who is deaf, was hired on contract with other deaf candidates and persons without disabilities. Two years later, many deaf people including Alok were absorbed as full-time employees. The reason was simple: competitiveness. Alok underwent rigorous simulations of different types of jobs and learnt to expect more from himself than the low expectations his family had of him.

Laila or Alok’s growth is possible in organizations that are inclusive and use end-to-end disability inclusion processes to create a level playing field for their employees. These include inclusive job descriptions stating the functional aspects of the role. This enables Laila and Alok to identify barriers and seek solutions to compete with their peers. They also need inclusive assessments without visual or audio elements, trained interviewers, "includable" trainers (a word coined by EnableIndia meaning the knowledge, skills and attitude to maximize value from all kinds of differences, including disability) and managers who provide feedback, encouraging them to grow. The company should also have allocated budgets for procuring assistive solutions or provisions where needed.

2. Creating a level playing field

On the demand side, standards for disability inclusion need to be set for the HR community in collaboration with the social sector organizations that are pioneers in this area.

Some of the most inclusive companies who have hired PwDs have faltered when their talent acquisition teams handle disability recruitment as “just another recruitment” without creating a level playing field. Using artificial intelligence, for example, for interviews can be discriminatory to people with disabilities.

To hire a person with a disability requires a “selection mindset” rather than an “elimination mindset”. When companies receive thousands of resumes from mainstream sources, they try to eliminate people via eligibility criteria, such as educational qualifications, or negative points towards recruitment. In the case of persons with disability, if the mindset is to eliminate a resume, the disability may seem like a negative point and hence get eliminated. Also, the source is small owing to barriers faced due to lack of accessibility in the ecosystem hence a selection mindset needs to be adopted.

3. Adhering to accessibility standards

Laila’s job was possible because all the software used by her was accessible or made accessible by experts. The procurement process of companies needs to adhere to universal accessibility standards. No software should be acquired until it meets the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

4. Setting the right expectations

On the supply side, competition and self-expectation are the foundational aspects for PwDs. It’s important to make skills training and upskilling inclusive for diverse disabilities, especially the skills mentioned in the World Economic Forum’s Future of jobs 2020 report.

5. Building aspirations

It’s important to sow the seeds of ambition from an early age via “early connect” programmes and open-source resources such as this jobs board for PwD. They also need to be aware of gig jobs, the latest market trends and “not so usual” jobs, like reviewing videos on social media. In a country like India where parents have a role to play in their child’s choice of work, we need to raise awareness about certain online jobs which might be perceived by some as frivolous.

6. Make them to be their own guide

One of the lessons we’ve learned in recent years is the need to equip PwDs to be their own placement officers. Despite intense job analysis and job mapping, Rohan’s role had to change after six months. As a person with autism, gaining competitiveness through employability training is not enough; he needs to learn to migrate to the new role or else he would be out of work.

7. Enabling via tech adaptations

Finally, technology and adaptations can help a PwD pick their own choice of work. Geeta is competitive in her Project Coordinator role because she uses features in speech recognition software to quickly navigate the mouse and click on select icons and menus. Her inability to move her hands doesn’t get in the way because technology is used well. Many persons with severe and multiple disabilities are working using specific workplace solutions.

Entrepreneurship and self-employment

The digital economy is unfolding in rural areas across developing countries. According to research we have seen, in India, many villages have more than 2,000 people leading to a surge in demand for grocery stores. Siblings Ganga and Rudra are persons with polio in both legs and sell petrol in their grocery store. In our self-employment training drives across districts of rural Karnataka, we met people like John, a person with polio, who has opened opening cyber cafes to provide services for the digital economy.


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Creative jobs and purple jobs

Manjunath’s paintings have been seen, appreciated, and purchased in many countries. He is a non-verbal autistic person. Companies like Atypical Advantage have opened up spaces showcasing works of painters, pianists, dancers, theatre artists, and traditional artisans who are PwDs.

At the height of the pandemic, Jiya would sit at home, hunched over her laptop, proofreading document after document. Her biggest satisfaction was that her work was making documents accessible for people with vision impairments. Jiya is a person with an intellectual disability.

Soumita is an entrepreneur with an autoimmune disorder that affects her movement. She runs a start-up selling adaptive clothing for people with disabilities. Priya is a person with a physical disability who runs a business for others like her offering them car driving lessons.

These examples illustrate the hidden jobs buried in the purple sector – purple being the colour of disability.

We believe that societal thinking is the way to a future where digital infrastructure unifies data and assets across players, enabling co-creation at scale with actors from Samaaj (society), Sarkaar (state) and Bazaar (market), creating a ripple effect.

*The names of individuals in this piece have been changed.

Schwab Social Innovators 2020 and Founders of EnAble India, a non-profit organization impacting livelihoods across 19+ disabilities and changing narratives for persons with disability to become valuable members of society, active citizens, taxpayers, change-makers and more.

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