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Breaking Down Barriers to Work for Youth with Disabilities

by Monica Caminiti, Senior Director, Skills to Succeed, International Programs, Save the Children US

As many as 220 million young people live with disabilities worldwide. Long-standing obstacles to employment force many to rely on family to help meet their basic needs. Sadly, those without supportive family members often fall into poverty.

For people with disabilities, the unemployment rate is as high as 80 percent in some countries. Barriers to education, inaccessible infrastructure and information, failure to provide reasonable accommodations at school and work, as well as inadequate laws, policies and protections prevent people with disabilities from participating in the workforce. Social factors also contribute to high unemployment rates. In workplaces everywhere, prejudice, fear and misunderstandings about disability continue to fuel exclusion.

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Save the Children calls on the private sector to hire young people with disabilities and share key learnings for creating workplace environments where they can thrive.

Our program, Skills to Succeed, has generated strong evidence, research, and approaches to closing the global skills gap. For more than a decade, we’ve strengthened employment opportunities for youth through training, mentorship, and job market linkages across nine countries. We’ve given young people the tools they need to excel as the next generation of workers, entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders.

In 2015, our Skills to Succeed program in Indonesia began adapting interventions to meet the needs of youth with disabilities. Learnings from this effort are shaping adaptations to the program so it can be scaled for youth with disabilities across China, Bangladesh, and Mexico.

To make a just and sustainable society a reality, systemic change is needed. Employers, communities, markets, and value chains must shift to fairly consider the capabilities of young people with disabilities and do their part to address misperceptions around levels of productivity, competence and roles people with disabilities can perform.

Through our program, we’ve learned that many employers want to do better. But they don’t know how.

So, what can employers do to help young people with disabilities to be successful in the workforce? Here are the top takeaways from our program:

Offer internships and pathways to permanent employment. For many youth, internships are a way of gaining valuable experience and are an entry point to full-time employment. However, our experience shows that youth with disabilities struggle to get hired following internships. Employers must understand the barriers that prevent them from hiring people with disabilities and offer a pathway from internships to employment.

Improve physical and digital accessibility. There is a misconception that adapting workplaces for disability inclusion is cost-prohibitive, but many reasonable accommodations are inexpensive. Not only should employers adapt their spaces, but they should also incorporate best practices for online accessibility into their websites, social media accounts, and recruiting methods.

Build capacity of staff without disabilities to effectively communicate with employees with disabilities. Disability doesn’t have one look - and is not always visible.  Employers should consider how they can adapt communications for people with disabilities, for example, by enabling captions and transcripts during online meetings, or hosting a live chat where people can interact in writing. For presentations, provide handouts or slide decks that summarize main points and include relevant links or resources. It is also necessary to build the skills and confidence of employees without disabilities to create an inclusive workforce. Trainings should be offered on disability inclusion. Helpful topics could include: how to adapt communications formats for people with disabilities, how to interact with a person who lip reads, and how to be open-minded, patient and supportive when working with people with disabilities.

This National Disability Employment Month, we urge you to lead with an inclusive mindset and consider what improvements your company can make to help young people with disabilities thrive in the workforce. Learn more about Save the Children’s efforts to break down barriers to work for youth with disabilities here.