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Inclusion is not intuitive. Often organisations and people with the best intentions are limited in the know-how on being inclusive.
As with gender equality, mainstreaming people with disabilities mean confronting huge barriers in attitude and perception. It must be remembered that people with disabilities are not a homogenous group. For organisations to initiate disability-smart practices require enabling structural changes to accommodate the various kinds of disability. Employers often make wrong assumptions about a person’s disability – sometimes minimising the effects and sometimes overestimating the severity. Either way, this leads to ineffective accommodation in workplaces, negative attitudes, and eventually, exclusion of people with disabilities from rights to employment.
There’s a stigma and public misconception that people with disabilities will be less competent or cost more to employ. But this cannot be more untrue: including people with disabilities can contribute billions of dollars to the economy. A study by the ILO reveals that exclusion from the labour market globally results in an estimated loss of GDP of up to 7%.
The whole idea of disability inclusion to date has been charity based. Bangladesh has recently prioritised disability as one of the major thematic areas of its development agenda. An estimated 16 million people – 10% of the country’s population – live with a disability. BRAC wants to take it forward as a rights-based approach, which asserts that disabilities exist because social and environmental conditions fail to include people of all abilities.
At BRAC, we are committed to creating inclusive societies. Closely aligning with the new National Plan of Action that was launched earlier in 2019, we are institutionalising disability inclusion in four main areas.
1. Protecting rights starts with inclusive policies
Taking a rights-based approach to disability immediately shifts the nature of roles and relationships between people with disabilities and the various actors in the service delivery system. And preserving it in frameworks and policies allow to truly institutionalise it with higher accountability. That is why as our very first step towards a disability smart organisation, we looked into our own policies for gaps and glitches.
Our HR policies were updated to reflect explicit organisational goals to institutionalise disability inclusion and ensure reasonable accommodation for staff with disabilities.
The new policies advocate for hiring people with disabilities in roles that they have been traditionally left out of. Updated recruitment strategies make it clear that disability is part of the organisation’s priority in all talent outreach initiatives. Interviewing people with disabilities should not be any different than interviewing non-disabled people, and job advertisements now clearly mention that people with disabilities will be called in for interviews if they have the right qualifications – an instance of translating inclusive policies into action. A new safeguarding policy was also put in place to protect adults at risk, including our staff and clients with disabilities.
We are also investing in capacity building of management-level staff so that everyone is aware of the range of conditions employees may experience in the workplace.
“As a people driven organisation, BRAC believes disability inclusion is not a charity, but crucial to creating a diverse workforce where every employee is given equal opportunity to achieve their full potential. We acknowledge that the initial inclusion phase can be challenging, however, in the long run this diversity will bring unique characteristics and competencies to the workplace.” – Maria Huq, director of BRAC’s human resource and learning
Language can both empower and discriminate. The culture of inclusion is also emphasised in our updated communications policy, which provides guidance on meaningful engagement with people with disabilities through all communication material, including using the right terminology when talking about disability. A series of sensitisation training was conducted among staff in BRAC’s headquarter in this regard, and will continue with our staff in the field offices in the days ahead.
2. We are making infrastructural changes across the organisation
Accessible infrastructure is a sign of a disability confident organisation. BRAC’s headquarter in Dhaka just underwent significant renovations with accessible elevators, and installation of assistive infrastructure like tactiles, rails and ramps placed in strategic locations. The changes follow the universal design guidelines and national building codes, and take into account that different people require different kinds of accommodation.
Twenty of BRAC’s area offices are currently being renovated according to the universal design guidelines, and once renovated are assessed by a consultant and disabled staff members. Mohammad Mohasin, captain of the national wheelchair cricket team has also visited some of these offices to give recommendations.
A few vehicles of our transport fleet were also made accessible, with the rest to follow over the course of this year. Renovation is also set to begin in the flagship Aarong stores in Dhaka.
3. We formed leadership committees to embed and sustain organisation-wide changes
A study by Cornell University shows that the likelihood that the organisation will embrace disability is immeasurably increased when it has strong commitment from its senior management, and clear organisational goals targeting people with disabilities.
A leadership committee comprising members from the cross-section of the organisation was formed. The committee sets priorities, assigns roles and responsibilities for execution, and proposes budgetary requests to the executive director. Decisions from this committee are followed up by a working group of 16 programmes from both administrative and development departments. This group meets every alternate month to share and capture programmatic and staff level disability inclusion results, knowledge and best practices, accelerating disability inclusive processes in their respective departments.
This mechanism has so far ensured timely action with higher accountability and transparency. In addition, the HR department recruited a consultant to oversee and drive these changes forward.
4. We are investing in innovative inclusion models
People with disabilities have largely been excluded from development interventions. At the programmatic level, we are strengthening our capacity for disability inclusion through piloting and scaling effective disability inclusion solutions in the areas of education, health, skills development, economic empowerment and social enterprise.
As of December 2018, 250,000 children have graduated out of our inclusive primary and secondary classrooms. The skills development programme is innovating on an age-old Bangladeshi apprenticeship model, integrating young people with disabilities to help them gain employment, the scope of which is set to expand in the coming days, whereas our health and microfinance programmes have specific targets to reach and work with people with disabilities.
Our six-month-long advocacy to make Bangladesh’s public transport disability friendly finally came into fruition at the beginning of this year. BRAC will be providing recommendations to create an inclusive water transport system. We will also be working with relevant bodies to ensure accessibility for the metro rail service currently being built in Dhaka.
We are initiating a pilot to integrate the Washington Group of questionnaire on disability within our programme’s M&E framework to learn and eventually adopt it more widely. Every programme is consciously thinking about making the environment disability friendly, and it’s starting with listening to existing staff with disabilities. In June of this year, microfinance – one of our largest programmes in terms of the workforce as well as the reach – hosted a focus group discussion where staff with disabilities shared their concerns and expectations. More of these discussions will take place in the next few months, and will eventually help set organisational targets.
Inclusion is not intuitive but then again, it is not impossible. It is time that we rejected outdated ideas of viewing persons with disabilities as objects of charity, and towards viewing them as equal and contributing members of society. When that happens, all of us stand to gain.
Sameeha Suraiya is a content strategist at BRAC Communications. Shamsin Ahmed is the founder and director of Identity Inclusion and a disability inclusion consultant with BRAC.