Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views • Issue no. 21 November-December 2003

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Self-Employment of Disabled People in Developing Countries

By Craig Harris (originally published by IDRC Reports, submitted by Mark T. Richards, ILRU Program)

Like many inhabitants of the poorer sections of Manila, Aminta migrated with her large family from the rural countryside of the Philippines to an urban life. Although uneducated and brought up in poverty, she makes a living by working at a cooperative that produces Christmas ornaments and other items for export markets.

The experience of Aminta (a pseudonym) is similar to thousands of others in the slums of Manila. But there is one important difference: Aminta is physically disabled. A hip ailment has made one leg shorter than the other.

Her plight represents the hardships and aspirations of persons with disabilities around the world. For most of her life Aminta has faced the daily obstacles of a person with disabilities: inaccurate employer perceptions about disability, worksite inaccessibility and lack of appropriate transportation. Still she considers herself lucky to have a job in a country where only about 19% of disabled women are employed.

An estimated 500 million people worldwide have visual, hearing, mobility or cognitive impairments. Typically, disabled people are among the poorest of the poor. Statistics show they are most likely to have incomes below the poverty line, be less educated and participate less in society. And their employment opportunities are extremely limited.

These stark facts spurred a project to study various strategies designed to foster economic independence and employment opportunities among persons with physical and cognitive impairments. The project, supported by IDRC (International Development Research Center) and coordinated by the University of Calgary, identified 76 initiatives in 31 countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.

"The researchers focused primarily on self-directed employment in developing countries," says project leader and associate professor of rehabilitation studies at the University of Calgary, Aldred Neufeldt. "We wanted to glean from these case studies effective models of income generation and self-employment," he explains. "In essence, we wanted to see what lessons could be learned." The examples vary considerably. Some projects were designed to help individuals start up self-employment enterprises in the formal or informal sector, while others encouraged the establishment of worker cooperatives or small- and medium-sized businesses run by people with disabilities.

Models for Self-Employment
Indeed, the cooperative to which Aminta belongs in the Philippines represents one of the more successful models for self-employment. Hers is one of 13 cooperatives under an umbrella organization called MicroLink. Funded partially by (external) agencies such as USAID, MicroLink provides training, business consultation, bookkeeping and other services to its member cooperatives. In return, workers at each cooperative agree to set aside any profits for future development. After five years within the MicroLink network, individual cooperatives are encouraged to become independent: two have done so. MicroLink shows the importance of having mechanisms in place that enable persons with disabilities to get started, says Neufeldt. Often, they don't have any formal business training and need some training and advice. The range of products in the MicroLink network has diversified from high-quality Christmas ornaments to calendars and bird cages.

A different type of project in the Philippines promoted the idea of community-based rehabilitation. In the early 1980s, the Philippine government's Department of Social Welfare Development recruited volunteers from neighbourhoods to identify people with disabilities and suggest ways of encouraging them to participate more within the community.

By 1989, the project had expanded to four regions of the Philippines and four hundred volunteers had established relationships with approximately 1,500 people with disabilities. Of this number, about 400 found employment, often with a family or local enterprise.

One particularly successful outcome involved a rural woman with significant mobility impairments who wanted to buy a sewing machine. Training and a small loan allowed her to begin a small sewing business. She now employs twelve others. These kinds of examples are important, Neufeldt says. Yet the goals of raising awareness and social consciousness about persons with disabilities are equally important in community-based projects.

In a Kenyan project, the main goal was overcoming one of the biggest barriers for persons with disabilities access to credit. Often, disabled persons have little business experience and no equity, in which case banks will not extend credit nor make loans.

To address this problem, the UNDP, in cooperation with the International Labour Organization, put up a US$500,000 loan guarantee to give persons with disabilities in Kenya access to credit. The Disabled Persons Loan Scheme provided funding through normal banking channels - Barclay's Bank - for projects that met certain criteria. A viable business plan had to be submitted, along with some proof of business management skills. About 240 people have received loans, complemented by business training.

Other examples of successful employment and income-generating projects involved organizations of persons with disabilities creating and running their own businesses. In Jamaica, for example, DEEDS Industries producing wooden products for tourism and some furniture was begun to prove that disabled workers could work alongside those without disabilities and earn competitive wages. Today, 60% of the workers at DEEDS are persons with disabilities who express high levels of job satisfaction.

Although the models of self-employment and income-generation differ in varying degrees, one thing seems constant about persons with disabilities in developing countries: there is great emphasis on self-employment owing to the absence of wage employment options and the lack of income support from social security programs. It is estimated that for each disabled person employed in the formal sector, at least four are generating income as a result of their own enterprises, mostly in the informal sector.

Lessons for Industrialized Countries
This situation contrasts sharply with that in industrialized countries such as Canada, where fewer than 3% of persons with disabilities are self-employed. Developed countries have emphasized sheltered workshops and affirmative action programs -- but with only limited success. It is estimated that only 50% of disabled people are employed in industrialized countries.

The economic reality for disabled people in developing countries can perhaps be addressed by lessons learned from the study, Neufeldt suggests. "There are a number of strategies persons with disabilities can pursue in income generation programs," he says. "The use of support services and mechanisms, the pursuit of skills and management training, access to credit or subsidies and the application of sound business practices are all crucial steps."

In order to disseminate these important lessons, the project organized an international conference on income generating activities by and for the disabled, held in Vancouver in 1992. The project has also produced a book and video materials for dubbing in different languages as dissemination tools. As well, representative case-studies of initiatives that have allowed disabled persons to participate in the formal and informal sectors of the economy were analyzed and recorded in a database. These outputs are intended to enable organizations to support and advocate projects reflecting the most successful types of strategies.

For Aminta, the challenges that lie ahead reflect the situation of many persons with disabilities. Her aspirations include buying sewing equipment and setting up a home business. Faced with little capital and no credit, she knows it will be an uphill struggle to achieve her goal. But working for the MicroLink project in Manila and having access to business training and support services offer her some hope for the future.

Aldred H. Neufeldt
International Study of Income Generation Strategies,
EDT 434
University of Calgary
Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4
Tel: (403) 220-7347
Fax: (403) 284-5569

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