Access to Livelihoods — tapping a hidden talent pool

28 August 2014

Tiziana Olivaby Tiziana Oliva

As we complain to our colleagues about the bank holiday weekend weather, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to have jobs that we can take a break from. Millions of people with disabilities around the world struggle to access any employment at all.

There are more than 400 million disabled people living in poverty in developing countries. Unemployment rates for those of working age are around 80-90%. That’s a huge number of people out of work. And it’s not a question of not being willing or able — most people with disabilities really want to work and support their family.  

Imagine how you would feel if you wanted a job but were constantly frustrated by barriers such as inaccessibility, discrimination or a lack of access to education and training. If you had to turn down a job because the office was on the 8th floor and your wheelchair wouldn’t fit in the lift. If employers ignored every application form you filled in simply because of your disability.

We're passionate about removing those barriers so that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else. Since 2008, we've been working with Accenture to do just that through our Access to Livelihoods programme in India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

I’m proud to say that over the past five years Access to Livelihoods has supported more than 10,000 disabled people to gain the skills and confidence to succeed in employment and enterprise. That support can range from training to gain a position at an accountancy firm to guidance on setting up their own business in textiles or electrical repair. We've also worked with more than 100 businesses including Accenture, Intercontinental Hotels and the British Council, supporting and encouraging them to employ people with disabilities.  

Saritha sitting in her wheelchair at her desk Disabled people represent a huge pool of hidden talent which businesses are missing out on. People like Saritha (pictured), who uses a wheelchair as a result of polio. She grew up in a small village in India determined to make a better life for herself and her family. We helped her to develop the skills and confidence she needed to find her dream job working for an IT company. She is now the family breadwinner and is earning enough to support her mother and brother to move to Bangalore to live with her.

At the core of Access to Livelihoods' success is the fact that it doesn’t only make ethical sense — it’s also good business. Studies have found that countries could lose up to 5% of their GDP if disabled people don't have equal access to employment. That’s before taking into account indirect losses such as social security payments, or caregivers’ lost wages.

Nagina and Sidra in their shopAnd it’s not just businesses and people with disabilities who gain from this inclusive approach. Families and communities also see huge benefits. Sisters Nagina and Sidra (pictured) are from Pakistan and both have visual impairments. With our support, they set up a store in their village. Their father says: ‘I can’t express my feelings in words, when I saw both my daughters supporting each other and running a shop.’ Their store is hugely popular with the local community — their customers say they don’t want to shop anywhere else!

I’m absolutely delighted that Accenture recently renewed their support for the programme. This new, three-year phase will support a further 13,000 people with disabilities. It’s great that we’ll also be expanding into South Africa for the first time. This is a fantastic opportunity to adapt and scale our programme across continents.

On the next rainy bank holiday, I’ll be smiling to think of the thousands of disabled people who, thanks to our project, are also now able to take a break from work.

Tiziana Oliva is Leonard Cheshire Disability's international director.

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