Why disability-inclusive employment benefits all of us

Simon Brown, June 2023

We continue to live in a world where people with disabilities are half as likely as people without disabilities to participate in labour markets, and twice as likely to be unemployed when they do get the opportunity to participate.

Global data analysis from the International Labour Organization backs this up, showing a 27% employment rate (relative to the adult population) for people with disabilities, compared to 56% for people without. People with disabilities are often channelled into precarious jobs that are deemed more ‘appropriate’ for them, or barely sustained out of work by minimal state safety net allowances. And yet, as I often argue, the consequence is a US$6 trillion (£4.8 trillion) loss to the global economy. It doesn’t make sense!

Although I previously worked in the development sector for 20 years, I’m still new to the area of disability-inclusive employment. But the last four years, since I’ve joined Sightsavers, have been really exciting, and I’ve seen how we can influence labour markets to be more inclusive of people with disabilities in decent employment. It’s not that the system necessarily resists inclusion, it’s that it doesn’t know how to make it happen.

A close-up of a woman using a sewing machine in Uganda.

Inclusive employment

We work with local and national partners to support the inclusion of people with disabilities in economic empowerment programmes.

About our work

An appetite for change

It’s not universally so, but there are an awful lot of companies around the world who want to be more inclusive. Companies whose workforces increasingly expect to be inclusive; who have tried, struggled, and are asking for help, not criticism. And of course there are many, many millions of people with disabilities who aspire to decent, formal employment but lack the self-confidence to readiness to go after opportunities. They may have internalised societal messaging that roles more complex or technical than dressmaking or shoemaking should not be their aspiration.

Start to address the negative attitudes and the absence of a capacity-building function in labour market systems, and we begin to see how the system changes. We also see that this is one of the greatest opportunities of the current generation, and the next one.

Watch the video to see Simon talking about our economic empowerment work.

Simon Brown talks to a group of jobseekers with disabilities who are seated around a table.
Simon speaks to jobseekers with disabilities at a cafe in Nairobi, Kenya. © Sightsavers/Patrick Meinhardt

Inclusion Works: what we learned

This potential for change was highlighted by the UK Aid Inclusion Works programme (part of the Inclusive Futures consortium initiative led by Sightsavers), which ended in 2023. The programme showed us how structured labour market analyses not only helped understand the gaps, but also identify sectors and industries offering the best opportunity for greater inclusion in workforces. The next step was to partner with pioneering companies that actually wanted to make it happen.

We learned that decent employment doesn’t limit us to look at waged or self-employment, but also can take us into agricultural supply chains (farming) and micro-entrepreneurs in retail networks.

We also learned how demonstrating a change in one context can lead to similar changes in others. I’m not for one moment suggesting we’ve reached the tipping point yet. We’re far from it, but we start to sense that there can really be one!
Working with Accenture and its Skills to Succeed Learning Exchange helped us much better understand that there a lot of people with disabilities who just need access to a system of online learning to build their self-confidence. This can help people to apply for job opportunities and successfully navigate recruitment processes. The system costs us nothing, outside of providing cheap internet access to learners.

We also gained a greater understanding of the potential within private sector value chains by working with Diageo in Kenya on inclusive agricultural supply chains. Hundreds of farmers with disabilities are now enrolled in the Diageo supply chain, supported through a commercially viable network of farmer hubs that attract equal numbers of farmers with disabilities. This is beginning to be replicated in other African countries where Diageo has a business interest, and the value chains approach has taken us into retail network partnerships with other companies including Coca-Cola Beverages Africa and Unilever.

What we’ve learned about increasing technical IT skills through the Nairobi IT Bridge Academy (piloted by Inclusive Futures) is now something we’re replicating in Nigeria and South Africa. This work is always done in collaboration with the private sector, to guarantee at least three to six-month internships to participants who graduate with an industry-recognised Cisco Systems accreditation.

Finally, we’ve learned we must ensure that there is a solution to that ‘missing middle’ (the absence of a capacity-building function) in labour rights. We’ve begun to address this by working with the ILO to establish functional, private sector led, national business and disability networks. These act as knowledge exchange opportunities for employers, supported by the expertise of the disability movement.

The essential element: engagement

None of this work is possible without meaningful engagement with organisations of people with disabilities and private sector companies. One of the most powerful things I’ve learned over the past four years is that, in the words of Sally Nduta, CEO of the United Disabled Persons of Kenya: “We need to learn to start together, identify the challenges together and identify solutions together so that we are walking that journey together.” When we get that right, change happens!

Interested in learning more or partnering with us on disability inclusive employment? Contact Simon by emailing [email protected]

I’m not suggesting we’ve reached the tipping point yet, but we sense that there can really be one!


Simon Brown is Sightsavers’ deputy technical director for economic empowerment.


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