KIRAN MATHUR MOHAMMED
Franklin D Roosevelt never wanted pity. Nor did Stephen Hawking, though one could not walk without assistance and the other was almost completely paralysed. Most people with disabilities just want to get on with it and live as full a life as anyone. (This includes going wild at Carnival, for that matter).
Yet they are shut out. At last count (in 2000), there were some 46,000 people with disabilities in TT. Very few are employed – though most want to be. The ILO has estimated that unemployment for people with disabilities in developing countries is more than 80 per cent. To eat, house themselves, and live, many are forced to live on government grants of just $1,800 a month. Because so many must rely on it, even this meagre grant costs the state $500 million annually.
This compounds the toll that people with disabilities already face. British charity Sense has found that 85 per cent of young people with disabilities are lonely. No wonder. As the BBC has reported, Scope has found that 67 per cent of British people feel uncomfortable even talking to a disabled person, far less hiring them. They didn’t know how.
Many employers are wary and anxious at the thought of hiring someone with a disability. Most people with disabilities don’t bother applying – just to avoid
the humiliation of rejection.
This leaves money on the table. In 2018, Accenture estimated that hiring just one per cent more people with disabilities could add US$25 billion in GDP to the US economy. Doing the same here would have a proportional effect.
Discrimination in a competitive market is costly. Devah Pager’s research has found that firms that discriminate are twice as likely to fail as those that did not: “Discrimination may or may not be a direct cause of business failure, but it seems to be a reliable indicator of failure to come.”
The benefits can be just as dramatic. Staff turnover is lowered by up to 30 per cent when a well-run disability programme is in place, as Workplace Initiative has highlighted.
Randy Williams was a senior vice president at Walgreens. He told Workplace Initiative: “We ended up hiring over 1,000 people with disabilities. We didn’t lower the bar when it came to performance but we did have to… include those who are routinely overlooked. The results exceeded our wildest expectations.”
Walgreens backed this up with research on 400,000 hours of work. In HR Magazine, Williams said: “Deaf forklift drivers…are twice as safe as someone who can hear…If I could give everyone a piece of advice, it would be to put plugs in the ears of their forklift truck drivers.”
Pepsi, UPS and Dupont have all started initiatives with similar results. What if their subsidiaries or partners here replicated even a few of them?
Local businesses might dismiss that as a luxury for large corporations. But according to employers in a recent study by Job Accommodation Network, 59 per cent of accommodations cost nothing, while the rest cost US$500 for each employee with a disability.
While writing this, I stumbled on a TV6 special report on Stephen Abraham, an energetic wheelchair-bound technician at TTEC. Wondering where he was, I discovered he retired six years ago after a 45-year career. (It also turned out that the interviewer was my mother, Ira Mathur – proof that you can’t escape from your parents!)
In that time, assistive technology has taken off. Talkitt identifies and translates unintelligible speech. Finger Reader is worn on one finger. It can scan text on a page or screen and read it aloud in real time. Transcence allows deaf people to connect to other people’s smartphone microphones and converts real-time conversations into text bubbles.
Then there is the potential market. The American Institutes for Research estimates the spending power of people with disabilities in the US at US$490 billion. What could that opportunity be in TT?
More than ever, consumers prefer to do business with inclusive companies. In 2017, the National Business and Disability Council found that 66 per cent will buy from a business that features people with disabilities, while 78 per cent will buy from a business that ensures physical accessibility.
We have committed experts who can offer advice. People like Dr Natalie Dick, Dr David Toby, or Dr Beverly Beckles. Teachers like Meghan Lee-Waterman (with her Academy for Special Needs), and occupational therapists like Kimberly Salloum create real opportunities.
The evidence seems clear. For my business partner Edward Inglefield, the decision to “ramp up” the hiring of people with disabilities makes total sense, even for our cash-strapped start-up. We’re hiring!
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh