Australian volunteers on a Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange in Fiji. Photo by: Scope Global

Earlier this year, five blind Australian volunteers together with a deaf program leader landed in Fiji, part of the Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange pilot project meant to help build capacity for locally based disability organizations. The “roaming team” of volunteers worked directly with developing communities, changing perceptions on disability even as they also worked for policy change. So successful was the initial debut that a second project will take place in 2017.

What’s as remarkable as the volunteers’ story is how rare it is in the development sector. Disability advocates have in the past pointed to aid organizations’ relative blindness toward people with disabilities in their programming and relief operations: health centers built with only stairs or WASH stations without handicap accessibility. But when it comes considering disability, aid organizations often need to look even closer to home.

“There may be less than 20 people with a disability working in paid roles in Australia’s development sector,” Pascal Rigaldies, executive director of the Australian Disability and Development Consortium, told a shocked audience at Australia’s inaugural conference for returned volunteer in Melbourne on Dec. 3-4.

Rigaldies’ figure, he said, was based on his own experience working in the sector. But Ben Clare, project manager for the Aspen Foundation who himself is visually impaired, believes it is a realistic estimate.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a study on how many people with a disability are working in the sector,” he told Devex. “There are probably a lot of people volunteering at a local level, including in the [disabled people’s organizations] where there are a lot of volunteers doing stuff, and good stuff. But it is not formally recognized.”

The lack of paid positions for disabled people with NGOS indicates an internal bias that experts say results from risk aversion, a lack of planning, and simple prejudice. Speaking with Devex on the sidelines of the conference, Valuing Volunteers — Bridge Builders and Change Makers, they elaborated on the barriers preventing NGOs from recruiting more people with disabilities — and how they might be overcome.

Overcoming barriers to inclusive employment

Even within the development sector, perceptions on the capabilities of people with a disability is the key barrier to inclusive employment.

“It is the stigma and perception of people,” Rigaldies explained. “The way to combat it is exposure. Until we have people with disabilities in each organization in key positions, not just an internship, but a position where they can demonstrate they can do a job as good as any person, we cannot change perceptions.”

Tamara Jolly, technical adviser manager for inclusive development with CBM Australia, told Devex a corporate policy and “clear commitment” to make the workplace inclusive was an important first step for NGOs to make. “And then you also need budget for reasonable accommodations in the workplace — not just ramps but also assistive technology that allows someone to achieve their best.”

Changing the attitudes of staff at all levels is vital to make any policy succeed, she said. That often comes simply through raising awareness and exposure. “The more that you engage with people and create opportunities on a short-term scale from volunteering to internships to employment to all levels of the organization, the more you will create change,” Jolly explained.

Taking the first step in employing a disabled person can be the biggest hurdle for NGOs. Targeted recruitment may be the solution, and ADDC has begun working with organizations to trial this strategy.

“What we are trying at ADDC is convincing a few organizations in Australia to join a pilot project over three or four years with a commitment to recruit a specific number of people with a disability and reach that target by the end of the four years,” Rigaldies said. He urged organizations to begin by identifying positions and recruiting specific people with a disability to begin changing organizational perceptions.

Why the risk aversion?

In addition to misperceptions about competence, Rigaldies said NGOs can be overly risk averse when it comes to people with disability. He cited a case of a French amputee with one arm who fought for months for the right to drive in his native country only to be told by the NGO he was working for in Angola that he would not permitted to drive for them.

Clare explained that the particular concern was about being blamed if something goes wrong. “If someone with an amputation was driving a car and had an accident, the accident could have nothing to do with the disability but people would say it wouldn’t have happened if the driver was able bodied.”

Overly arduous accountability can add to this mentality, according to Clare. “Accountability is necessary but at times it can be so over the top that it can prevent employment of people with disability because they are scared that something could go wrong and they may not get future funding. When you are competing for that dollar, you will do anything to keep it.”

The role of government as an employer

Governments also have a role to play in funding education and skills programs for people with a disability, particularly in developing countries. Such opportunities improve the talent pool of qualified hires for NGOs.

Jolly pointed to Australian programs that bring DPO leaders and people with disabilities to Australia from Asia and the Pacific through scholarships funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. They study diverse topics, including environmental science and education, at Masters and PhD level.

“This creates an opportunity to build capacity for the Pacific,” Jolly suggested. “On conclusion of their studies, DFAT should create recruitment opportunities for them in Australia and the Pacific.” Roles should utilize their area of expertise, Jolly added. “Don’t make them sit in the DFAT office in their country. If their training was in education, DFAT can support them getting a role in the Ministry of Education.”

It was a suggestion applauded by Rigaldies and Clare. “I only know of one person with a disability working for DFAT in Kiribati,” Clare said. “She’s visually impaired. It would be good to more people with disabilities working at DFAT posts. They could advise on policy and heaps of stuff in country.”

Rigaldies said it was an opportunity for DFAT to put their own strategy into action. “DFAT have put together a disability inclusive strategy,” he said. “It would be great if they created internships or positions for all these people who have studied to get their first job and show, straight away, that they can succeed. The first job is always the hardest to get.”

Most importantly, it could be a cost-effective solution that uses DFAT staff as liaisons. “Sometimes the barrier may simply be in perception,” suggested Clare. “The idea that they have done all this training but no belief that they can actually do the job. A liaison will ensure that these people are going to be recognised in the same way that other professionals will.”

Is disability too hard for NGOs?

Disability awareness within an organization can feed back into programming. Research shows that living with a disability in a developing country correlates to poverty. Despite this, disability programs are not necessarily priorities for many NGOs.

One reason is planning, said Clare: “Disability projects require a long-term commitment,” he told Devex. “Aid agencies like stories they can rack up — someone is at death’s door and five minutes later as a result of that organization they are now thriving. But if aid organizations and governments state they want to reduce poverty, they have to be in it for the long term.”

Disability-focused programs are also often at the mercy of budget cuts, he said. “Unfortunately money comes and goes and every time there is a budget people hold their breath and wait for what is going to happen next,” Clare said. “It depends on what government is in, what Donald Trump’s going to do — it’s so uncertain.”

Yet it’s not always about a lack of money; resources and training are often just as important. In fact, having people with disabilities in the implementing NGOs can go far.

The Australian volunteer program in Fiji highlights the value of developing countries seeing people with disability leading normal lives and working in challenging roles. “It is a lead by example approach,” Clare explained. “This is where the volunteer program has been really powerful. Seeing something happen will make change happen. It is the proof people need to enact change.”

In Kiribati when a program managed by Clare enrolled their first disabled person in a public school, it was only his presence and the story of his experience that convinced people the program could succeed. “They had a living example of what could happen if they enacted this policy. Sure enough it has worked.”

For many developing countries, changing attitudes towards people with disability is the current challenge — showing a disability does not prevent life from going on as normal.

Having disabled people including Clare lead this work has been a game changer.

Devex is a media partner for the Returned Australian Volunteer Network conference.

What are your perceptions and experience with inclusive employment in the development sector? Submit your comments below to continue this important conversation.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.