Numerous Employment Barriers for People with Disabilities in Developing Countries

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New white paper takes a close look at ten developing countries to understand how people with disabilities are faring at work

A woman with a disability stands in her office in Senegal.

Ramatoulaye Camara works as a cashier at Atlantic Bank in Senegal. © Elise Fitte-Duval / Handicap International

Exclusion of people with disabilities from work is simply unacceptable.

Decent, salaried jobs in developing countries are rarely an option for people with disabilities, according to a new white paper, Situation of wage employment for people with disabilities: ten developing countries in focus. The result is that people with disabilities are denied one of their fundamental rights—the right to employment.

Over the past six months, Handicap International researchers examined 24 of the 30 developing countries where the international NGO runs inclusive livelihoods projects, and then put ten countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia under the microscope to determine if people with disabilities are landing decent, freely chosen jobs.

The findings are stark. “Individuals with disabilities are being systematically excluded from the opportunity to earn a living wage,” said Herve Bernard, head of the inclusion unit for Handicap International. “If they do land jobs, they almost always earn less money than their colleagues without disabilities. Exclusion of people with disabilities from work is simply unacceptable.”

Handicap International produced the paper for the first annual Harkin International Disability Employment Summit, which takes place Dec. 8 and 9, in Washington, DC. The Summit, hosted by Senator Tom Harkin (Ret.), gathers more than 180 government officials, professionals with disabilities, business and civil society leaders, and activists from 30 countries to shine light on effective laws, policies and programs, and to find ways to create more job opportunities for people with disabilities. Handicap International is a member of the Harkin Summit planning committee, which includes The Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement at Drake University, Association of University Centers On Disabilities, School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at University of Massachusetts (Boston), Poses Family Foundation, United States Business Leadership Network, and United States International Council on Disabilities.

“The Harkin Summit is the first time we’ve brought so many global stakeholders together to focus exclusively on making workplaces more inclusive to people with disabilities,” said Bernard. “It’s paramount that we work together to help people with disabilities secure decent jobs, wherever they happen to live.”

People with disabilities account for 15% of the world’s population, or 1 billion people, according to the World Report on Disability. Eighty percent of people with disabilities live in developing countries. Yet good data on disability are hard to come by. Of the 24 countries surveyed, only China, Egypt, the Philippines, and Senegal devote a section of their national census to measuring employment rates of people with disabilities. The result is a murky understanding of the true economic impact of their exclusion.

Globally, fewer than 20% of people with disabilities are working, according to the International Labour Organization. This exclusion stems from a wide variety of barriers, including physical and structural barriers at work, and high levels of discrimination in regard to their ability to work. Also, too few schools and training centers welcome students with disabilities, hindering their job readiness.

Stereotypes about people with disabilities permeate the labor markets in developing countries. The paper notes that in West Africa, government representatives and senior business leaders said that if they did hire someone with a disability, they were motivated first by pity, and second by someone’s professional qualifications. Such discrimination not only denies people from a chance to support themselves and their families, but also to socialize with colleagues in a workplace.

There are strong links between disability and poverty. Most jobs for people with disabilities in the study were in the informal sector, and wages are far lower for people with disabilities. Tunisians with disabilities, for instance, were earning 40% less than their people who didn’t have a disability, according to the paper. And in Colombia, a law states that companies cannot pay people with disabilities less than 50% of the minimum wage in sheltered workshops. The wage gap in formal sectors also worsened for women with disabilities.

The paper found room for hope. Some local stakeholders, corporations, and service providers have established good policies and initiatives to provide more opportunities to people with disabilities. The ten-year-old United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, now ratified by 168 states, or three-quarters of the world’s nations, is giving people with disabilities more access to their basic human rights than ever before.

“This paper will be the first piece of a more comprehensive data set and bank of best practices, so that more individuals with disabilities can enjoy decent work worldwide,” added Bernard.

About Handicap International
Handicap International is an independent international aid organization working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict, and disaster for nearly 35 years. Alongside people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups, the organization's action and testimony are focused on responding to essential needs, improving living conditions, and promoting respect for dignity, and basic rights. Since its founding, Handicap International has set up development programs in more than 60 countries and intervenes in numerous emergency situations. The network of eight national associations (Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States) works constantly to mobilize resources, jointly manage projects and to increase the impact of the organization’s principles and actions. Handicap International is one of six founding organizations of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), the co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, and the winner of the 2011 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. Handicap International takes action and campaigns in places where “living in dignity” is no easy task.

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