IN an environment of continuous economic uncertainty and a seemingly haphazard drive towards austerity, people with disabilities (PWDs) continue their struggle to enter the mainstream despite the cost of inclusion being lower than generally perceived. In the dream that is Naya Pakistan, will the largest minority in the world finally be able to achieve financial security?

According to the World Health Organisation, there are around one billion, or 15 per cent of the total population, PWDs in the world and an estimated 27 million in Pakistan. A report by the British Council and The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that ‘by 2018 the costs to Pakistan’s economy of excluding persons with disabilities from employment could reach $20bn a year; rising by approximately $5.5m per day, every day.’

Meanwhile, notorious for being criticised for its dismal social indicators and uninspired implementation mechanisms, the Sindh government, in its last week in office before the 2018 general elections, passed the Sindh Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2018. As a result, Sindh became the first province to have a consolidated disability authority, an amalgamation of the social welfare and special education departments. Shafiq Aman Mehsar, secretary of the freshly minted department of empowerment for persons with disabilities, says that the first phase of integration is almost complete. “Most of the work is done; only budgeting remains. The Act is in place and the rules are now going to be made.”

Of the total number of PWDs, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that between 785m and 975m are of working age. There are no credible statistics for Pakistan but many would agree that the proportion of PWDs who are employed is significantly lower.

With a countrywide unemployment rate presumed to be greater than 5.9pc, employment opportunities for PWDs are even more limited than those categorised as able-bodied. The major barriers to workforce inclusion remain: (a) limited access to quality education; (b) limited support for job seekers; (c) the attitude of businesses regarding the employment of PWDs and; (d) governmental lethargy in enforcing the said legislation.

Shifting a societal mindset ingrained in the concept of charity to a rights-based one is an uphill task that requires heavy government intervention. By upping the job quota of PWDs to 5pc, making accessible infrastructure compulsory to address mobility issues, establishing a fund to be used exclusively for disability-related issues and introducing a Special Employment Exchange and portal, on paper the future for PWDs looks bright in Sindh.

Omair Ahmad, who works as director at NOWPDP, an organisation working with PWDs, informs Dawn that so far “there has not been any impact [of the law] because people are not aware what architectural specifications are needed. And those who do have the knowledge have not been contacted by the government to actually come in and work on these things.”

Mr Mehsar, meanwhile, promises that work is being done and offices should soon expect notices. He adds that if done diligently it’s not very expensive to make a building accessible. Therefore, implementing this aspect of the law should not be difficult for the department, he says.

The cost of inclusion MCR, the franchisee of Pizza Hut, Burger King and TGI Fridays in Pakistan, has a mainstreaming disability initiative run as its CSR component. Saba Hasan, head of CSR, mentions that soon after they started hiring they realised that people who were not traditionally disabled were benefitting more from the resultant diversity.

“People who were able-bodied actually had a much tougher time integrating than PWDs because for PWDs we weren’t truly offering them anything that was unique. Initially, there were small incidents throughout the day where the PWDs would be either taunted or expected to do something that was not for them to do without the right training or assistive technologies.

“After disability sensitisation sessions, I’m happy to note that interactions have become quite natural. A lot of people who worked with us would be able to take their experiences and find other jobs in other companies and do a lot better,” she concludes.

Organisations tend to shy away from additional costs. The cost of inclusion is often perceived to be many times higher than it actually is. Advantages of a diverse labour force, in the long term, may make up for any extra investment from the organisation as, according to the ILO, “provides significant advantages in improving a company’s efficiency, productivity, competitiveness and overall success”.

The British Council report gives an example of the cost involved: “Making an office wheelchair-accessible requires an investment of between $3,000 and $10,000, depending on the size of office and other facilities already available.”

Mr Ahmad opines that the cost can be looked at from multiple angles: “If the organisation is not already set up as architecturally inclusive then it may cost them around 10-15pc of their budget for retrofitting and remodelling. But if an institution adds this amount into their initial budget, it’ll be around 1pc.

“Apart from infrastructure, the cost is mostly just the consultant’s fee, which is a nominal amount compared to economic benefits,” he adds.

Ms Hasan, who aimed to make at least one Pizza Hut outlet accessible in each district, is practical. “We had to pick and choose. There were some areas where the building design allowed for these changes to happen and then there were others where it was much more difficult.

“Sign language lessons were quite expensive initially. We engaged local schools. Deaf Reach had trained someone whilst they were doing their undergraduate; so they joined us as soon as they graduated and were able to do a lot of the translation,” she says.

Aaron Awasen from Deaf Reach adds: “While the sign language is the best, with smart phones available these days, we are working on getting more interpreters out who can assist people in the workforce.” Meanwhile, text has become quite common with a lot of people with hearing impairments communicating by writing on their phones.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 3rd, 2018

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