Challenges and Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (PwDs): COVID-19 – A Game Changer

Aastha Arora

July 2021

In India, 2.21% of the population is affected by some form of disability. The World Bank, however, pegs this figure to be anywhere between 5%-15%. Of those who are disabled, nearly 50% are young (20-59 years), with disability in movement being the predominant form of disability.

Conventionally, disabilities that are more perceptible, such as visual and hearing impairment, and intellectual and orthopedic disabilities, have garnered more attention. However, the more recent RPWD Act, 2016, recognizes 21 categories of disabilities. It also, for the very first time, brings the private sector players into its ambit, and has stipulations on engaging PwDs in the workforce. 

There is hence a recognition of the PwD rights, and efforts to ensure their sustainable inclusion in the workforce have been undertaken. 

However, despite these efforts, PwDs form less than 0.5% of staff in India’s top companies. A reason is that many places are not PwD friendly, not just from an infrastructural perspective, but also from an attitudinal and acceptance perspective. During the recent Covid-19, the problems have been one too many! Social isolation coupled with a lack of employment opportunities have made a majority of them increasingly vulnerable during the pandemic. 

Even so, as is said, the darkest hour is just before the dawn! 

As a result of the pandemic, many employers have now adapted to Work from Home (WfH). In August 2020, Development Solutions spoke with senior HR leaders from recognized BFSI sector companies, industry enablers, and NGO partners, to understand the employment opportunities and skilling requirements for PwDs in the BFSI sector in a post-Covid-19 world. Many HRs reported that profiles, such as, operations, customer care, business intelligence/ data analysis, HR recruitment, digital sales, could convert into permanent WfH opportunities in mid-long term. Interestingly, many also echoed that increased technology usage and the opportunity to work from a location with suitable infrastructure are expected to open multiple opportunities for PwDs in the future. 

In infrastructure respect, I think Covid-19 is a boon as a lot of organizations will allow people to WFH now. So, organizations could say that one could work out of home- that could be an opportunity for disabled people.”

HR, NBFC

The increasing shift to digital, as a result of the pandemic, thus offers an opportunity to PwDs to explore career options of their choice, and be a part of the mainstream workforce. 

While most HRs were willing to recruit PwDs, and mentioned an increase in opportunities in a post-Covid-19 setting, all emphasized on ability-based hiring. Hence, while the BFSI sector is likely to generate more opportunities for PwDs, bridging the skill gap will be pertinent. Consequently, educational attainment of PwDs is first and foremost in improving their living conditions. 

We once hired someone with cerebral palsy as the head of credit for mid-market and SME segment. He was extremely capable despite the disability.”

HR, Bank

While the RPWD Act creates a mandatory obligation for all government higher educational institutions to reserve at least 5% of seats for PwDs, less than 0.1% of PwD students in India are actually enrolled in primary education, and it decreases to mere 0.01% in secondary education.  Moreover, not even 1% of Indian educational institutions are PwD friendly. 

It emerged from our conversations with HRs, industry enablers, NGO partners, and PwDs working within the BFSI sector, that at an objective level, there is a driven system of stakeholders working towards ensuring a more inclusive environment for PwDs. The same is briefly captured in the image below: 

“We often apply for job openings with support from our friends and families, or through NGOs.”

PwD, working in the BFSI sector

“Even if I want to hire, I don’t get CVs. Perhaps you have to have a recruitment partner to get recruits. You have naukri.com for the usual hires, but there is no single place to get PwD recruits.”

HR, Bank
DiagramDescription automatically generated

However, despite their concerted efforts, the representation of PwDs in education institutions and workforce remains abysmally low. The key reasons that were reported were accessibility issues and a lack of skilled pool of PwD resources. 

Following our interactions with various stakeholders, and a secondary scan, we feel that following measures can be considered to address some of the education and workforce related challenges, that limit equal and fair participation of PwDs:

  • Solutions for PwDs should be designed with the involvement of the PwD population. This would help ensure that their lived experiences and issues are appropriately considered. Some of the programs, such as the youth employability fellowship started by NCPEDP offer hope in this direction.
  • The technological revolution, such as the shift to remote education that is happening in the post-Covid-19 world, should ensure an inclusive design for PwDs, to prevent these technologies from becoming a barrier for them. Learning content should be presented in a format that is consumable by students with all forms of disabilities.
  • Disability hiring should form part of Board level discussions. While organizations are open to the idea of recruiting PwDs, they do not seem entirely committed to it. The commitment needs to be ensured. The incorporation of PwDs in the workforce should be looked at from a business perspective, and not merely a legislative or CSR perspective.
  • Advocacy within the BFSI sector should be conducted on 1) employing PwDs without any role bias 2) organizational sensitization across all levels and 3) equal pay for equal work for the PwDs 
  • Clear outcome-based career paths should be mapped out for PwDs at the time of their recruitment. 
  • Training programs for PwDs should cater to the organizations’ diverse growing requirements. Some aspects that could be focused upon are – programming languages such as JAVA and PYTHON; Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning; management, communication, and soft-skills. 
  • Stronger monitoring and compliance of various acts, policies, and initiatives should be ensured.  

Disability is a huge issue in India, affecting a significant proportion of youth. While the government has stipulated laws for both public and private sector companies, the employment of PwDs is often tokenism.

Covid-19 has provided an opportunity for WFH, and this has provided some advantages to engage PwDs. However, while WFH provides an opportunity, the private sector, especially the BFSI, is willing to engage them if they are capable; in other words, organizations are guided by equal opportunity policies. Hence, while WfH paves way for opportunities, equitable access of PwDs to education and other skilling opportunities will be critical to ensure their inclusion in the workforce. 

Some of the efforts in recent times help in ensuring equitable access, however, it will be crucial to understand strategies for their implementation and sustainability. One such initiative has been the guidelines released by the government to ensure that all the educational e-content being developed complies with national and international accessibility standards. It is also heartening to see that the efforts of disability activists and NGOs are yielding results. Recently, Rajasthan became the first state in the country to nominate PwDs to the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). 

These examples of change in the society help remind us that our efforts will go a long way in realizing the dream of a truly inclusive world. 

What according to you could be some of the solutions that one could consider to ensure a more equitable representation of PwDs within the workforce?

Aastha Arora is a Project Manager at Development Solutions. She supports the business, digital, and visibility strategy. She also manages some of our assignments and has an MBA in sales and marketing.

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