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Every seventh person alive today – more than 1 billion people in total – lives with some form of disability. Yet, people with disabilities are still overwhelmingly overlooked in times of emergency.
At 10 years old, Raj was diagnosed with typhoid. The consequence was life changing: Raj could no longer move his upper body.
Growing up in Khulna in southern Bangladesh, 31-year-old Raj is quiet by nature. He is especially cautious of his surroundings when he speaks. Raj shares how he was not always like this. It was the pitiful, and sometimes dismissive attitude he would receive that made it difficult to interact with people around him.
Raj always yearned for an opportunity to build a business or find a job. Ten years back, he took a risk. He set up a grocery store out of a corner in his house, buying goods with his family’s savings. He managed to run on profit for years, and became a familiar face in his community in Noyaboti, Khulna. But then the pandemic hit. Khulna, just like the rest of Bangladesh, went under lockdown and sales across every sector came to an abrupt halt. Raj decided to close the shop for most days of the week, opening only when there was something to sell.
He desperately started to search for opportunities to work. But how could he step into a world where a person with a disability is still hardly seen as a potential member of a workplace? Most work opportunities that were available at the time depended on manual work such as in construction or ferrying goods.
Less than 20% of people with disabilities are currently employed in Bangladesh. Those who do work are often poorly paid, with no legal or social safeguarding.The prevailing belief is that accommodating a person with a disability is expensive. Such beliefs result in creating barriers that ultimately push them to live with higher rates of poverty and unemployment.
That same year, in 2020, Raj was selected through a community group by BRAC’s urban development programme, which identifies those hit the hardest by the pandemic. Raj slowly started to gain stability as he restocked his inventory, and started selling again. He offered drop-off services where he would carry the goods himself. Thankfully, his community was a small and supportive one. Upon advice from BRAC’s staff, he opened a separate counter for bkash and mobile top-up services. More and more people preferred paying through bkash when they bought groceries, and it brought in good business.
Raj lives with his wife, daughter and mother in their own house. Raj realises that the structural barriers that he faces – barriers to fully participating in his community – are beyond his control. So far, he was able to navigate through these barriers because he chose to focus on things he could do. “There are many things I can do,” says Raj. “I am educated. I work. I am healthy and most importantly, I don’t have to rely on others. I am independent.”
Despite Raj’s entrepreneurial skills and mindset, Raj is faced with a crisis of a different kind.
The recent spike in prices of food items and other costs has eaten up much of people’s purchasing capacity. And it has come at a time when many people like Raj had hoped to make a turnaround as economic activities picked up since the pandemic.
“Price of everything is rising and very soon, it will start to affect my business. How can I buy 10 items from wholesalers if I can only afford five due to price hikes? How will I run my shop?”
BRAC’s urban development programme stands beside people like Raj Mia who show entrepreneurial spirit through various forms of crises. The programme sees asset grant, skills training and building market linkages as some of the most effective ways to end exclusion.
Excluding people with disabilities costs Bangladesh USD 1.18 billion a year.
It is time that we recognise that the exclusion of a person with a disability is the result of a barrier to the individual’s ability to participate, rather than the result of the individual’s inability to participate. For example, if a person cannot access transport because of a disability, it is not his or her inability to walk, but rather the lack of accessibility of the transport.
With the right support, people with disabilities have the capacity to live productive lives. All it takes is an inclusive mindset – one that sees everyone as equal members of society.
Samia Mallik is Manager of Knowledge Management, Innovations and Communications at BRAC Urban Development Programme. Abu Nayeem Md Shakib is Senior Research Officer at BRAC Urban Development Programme.