“This programme is nation-building”

June 2022
A man wearing a shirt stands and smiles, looking at a piece of paper on a table. Sat at the table are three women who are smiling.
Simon Brown at the Global Cafe in Kenya, as part of the Inclusive Futures formal employment programme launch

An innovative disability-inclusive employment pilot programme in Nigeria, Kenya, Bangladesh and Uganda (run by the Inclusive Futures consortium, of which Sightsavers is a partner) has recently come to an end. Simon Brown, Sightsavers’ global technical lead on economic empowerment, looks back on the impact of the programme, what we learned along the way and what needs to happen next.

It’s statistically very clear that people with disabilities don’t participate equally in labour markets or have the same employment rates as those of people without disabilities. We can say with some confidence that people with disabilities all around the world are half as likely to be active in the labour market as people without disabilities. And even when they are participating in that labour market, they’re twice as likely to be unemployed. So there’s a huge gap there, a labour force participation rate gap that just doesn’t make sense.

The $6 trillion impact of exclusion

People with disabilities, their families and friends in total control an estimated 10% of the global economy in terms of monetary value (that’s around $8 trillion). This is becoming a call to action for a lot of companies thinking: “Well, we need to develop products and services that are relevant to people with disabilities or their families or their friends.”

There’s data available within the systems of organisations like the World Bank and the International Labor Organization that allows us to work out the cost of exclusion to the global economy. If we look at the gaps (where data exists) between people with disabilities and their participation in labour markets relative to the total population, we can calculate that there’s about a $6 trillion loss to the global economy every year.

This becomes very tangible, not only to companies that might focus on that $8 trillion in terms of consumer spending, but also to governments looking at national income losses because of the lack of participation in the labour market of people with disabilities. It’s not just in the countries where we have programmes; it’s in all economies, whether they are emerging or more mature – the data is very consistent.

What we did and what we learned

When we developed the Inclusive Futures employment programme, we made some huge assumptions. We assumed there was resistance from companies to employ people with disabilities, and this meant the programme in the co-creation phase was skewed towards trying to convince employers that inclusion was worthwhile, rather than working with them to achieve it.

What we did at the beginning was to run labour market assessments in all four countries. We did this to understand the difference between the sectors that have the potential to be more inclusive or to generate employment opportunities, versus those sectors that might contribute more to the economic value of the country but don’t necessarily generate a huge number of jobs. We also spoke to employers and asked how we could make it easier for them to be more inclusive of people with disabilities.

At the same time, we tried to understand the aspirations, barriers and vulnerabilities facing people with disabilities in accessing employment. This created a foundation for us to challenge some of the assumptions we’d made in the early phase of the programme. And we found that there was energy and aspiration from companies to be more inclusive. But there was quite a clear gap around confidence when it came to disability inclusion.

All of this has driven the work we’ve done over the last three years with amazing companies that aspire to be more inclusive. Like Diageo in Kenya, where we’ve focused not just on the core of the company but looked at the whole supply chain. This focus through the Inclusive Futures employment programme led to a commitment from the company that by 2025, at all stages of its business, 3% of the workforce will be people with disabilities. That work has been impressive, as has the work with Safaricom, which is where we piloted our IT Bridge Academy.

The IT Bridge Academy takes a curriculum from the IT company Cisco that generates an industry-recognised certification for people to get jobs. The academy adapts the delivery of the curriculum (but not the curriculum itself) to be accessible to people with disabilities. The pilot outperformed mainstream academies and generated outstanding results, with an almost 100% pass rate when globally the rate is about 50%. And that led to a significant number of IT Bridge Academy graduates working at Safaricom in paid six-month internships.

Another great example is from Nigeria, where we worked with the Lagos state government to pilot an access-to-work mechanism (similar to the UK’s access-to-work structure), linking the state government to the UK Department of Work and Pensions to get some mentoring. We’ve seen how this can make it easier for companies to be more inclusive of people with disabilities because they can access financial support for reasonable adjustments or accommodations within the workplace that they couldn’t afford themselves.

We’ve also worked with the Nigeria Business Disability Network, which includes the Chartered Institute of Personnel Management plus companies like Unilever, Standard Chartered Bank, MTN and others. They’ve been building a formidable network of companies that believe workplaces should be more inclusive. They believe they should be influencing other companies, but also collectively advocating towards the government.

In the informal sector, we’ve worked with Diageo on piloting working with farmers and seeing how a disability-led approach could benefit the whole farming community. We’ve made sure that programmes are designed in a way that’s accessible to people without disabilities as well as people with disabilities, and this begins to bring people together. It means that people start breaking down their own prejudices and assumptions around disability. And we now have farmers with and without disabilities working together, growing their crops and collaborating within that supply chain.

On the employer side, we’ve reached thousands of people working in companies like Unilever, Coca-Cola, Safaricom and many others with training on the fundamentals of inclusion. This starts with how to talk about disability, then moves into deeper issues like understanding unconscious bias and recognising that, whether unconscious or not, bias is often discriminatory.

Leading the way: who are the pioneers?

There’s always going to be companies who are pioneers and there’s always going to be companies who lag behind. We’ve focused on the ones who are pioneers, or who aspire to be pioneers, creating more inclusive workforces.

We’ve seen through the employment programme that fairly minimal investments in time or in adaptions to workplaces make it possible to be more inclusive. And we know there’s a business rationale – more talented, more diverse workforces tend to be far more innovative and far more productive. But there’s also an ethical rationale. If you really want to be a company that’s relevant to communities of people with disabilities, then you’d better be representative in your workforce because that’s the way to demonstrate your commitment to disability as a significant part of your business.

Most companies understand this. For some, it’s not the right moment, and many companies have lots of different priorities. But you will always find companies who want to take that step, who want to start that journey, and we can accompany them and make it easier for them. Our pitch will always be: there’s a business case and an ethical case for inclusion – and we can help you realise a much more diverse workforce with relatively limited effort and limited expense.

There’s still a lot of conversations to have around challenging perceptions around the capabilities of people with disabilities and the biases that are there. But the pioneering people and companies, over time, will have a huge influence on those who lag behind, either through their own supply chains and with their own commercial relationships or through platforms like the business and disability networks. Eventually, other companies will catch up because they’ll recognise they’re at a commercial disadvantage by not being inclusive.

The impact of the programme

The Inclusive Futures employment programme has seen some amazing results, and there’s a lot to be proud of. From my own point of view, one highlight was the recent graduation of the IT Bridge Academy students (in March 2022). It was very emotional; it really brought tears to my eyes to see the confidence that’s built within a group of people in a very short period of time – nine months! – to grow that expectation to be successful, and to be leaders, role models and mentors to other people.

We’ve seen a big shift around what we’ve sometimes termed ‘meaningful participation of organisations of persons with disabilities’. We’ve moved from advocacy-based programmes to capacity-building programmes, with people with disabilities being very much part of that shift – and often leading it.

Something that Sunday (Sightsavers’ country director in Nigeria) has said is that this kind of programme is nation building. And that’s something that is really compelling. It builds nations because we start to address a key exclusion. But to do that, we have to invest to bridge those gaps in employment and labour force participation.

In three years in an innovative project, we’ve demonstrated how systems can change. We’ve demonstrated we have enough evidence that systems can adapt to be more inclusive of people with disabilities in formal employment. And now the challenge to us is to find the mechanisms and the financing to really bring that to scale. We just need to recognise that and incentivise governments to invest in those programmes because they build national economies.

We know that really good companies value diverse pools of talent and teams of people. If we start to have people with disabilities participating equally in those labour markets, then the return on the investment is astronomical.