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          Volume 11 |Issue 14| April 06, 2012 |


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Enabling the Disabled

Shaveena Anam

Shanti Begum and Shumi, both physically disabled now
working at Tunic Fashions. Photo: Courtesy

"We are disabled, we are not worth anything in this society,” said Shanti Begum when I met her two months ago. Shanti is physically disabled; her right foot is bent sideways and she walks with a limp, but the rest of her body and her mind work perfectly well. I was speaking to her at the Mirpur ADD (Action for Disability and Development) centre where she was receiving training from the Shiree-ADD project which works to provide skills training to poor people with disabilities. She was uncertain, highly doubtful in fact, about whether she was going to get a job or not. But to her surprise and delight, after 24 days of training, she has been hired at Tunic Fashions as an operator.

Shanti now stands tall and proud, excitedly telling me about her new work environment. She is one of 10 extremely poor beneficiaries who had, till this point, led lives of severe suffering; poor to begin with, then marginalised in society on account of their disability. Now she feels confident, arriving to work on a rickshaw, doing the same amount of work as anyone else and being an income generating, contributing member of her family, able to pay rent and her son's school fees. She had attempted to work at another factory before but had to resign because she couldn't cope with climbing up nine flights of stairs every day. Her new working environment is more accommodating, allowing her to use the lift, giving her priority during pay days and giving her more flexible hours. She still manages to complete all the work that is required of her and sometimes more.

Given that there is a full range of physical disabilities, some of which can be easily overcome with minimal customised support, it makes sense to try and help people with disabilities become productive members of society so they may support themselves. Considering the shortage of skilled workers in the RMG sector there is an obvious opportunity waiting to be explored. Not only would this help counter social prejudice as they prove themselves capable, this would also allow these marginalised people to contribute to our foreign exchange industry, and have the dignity of not being dependent on others. However, such a step forward requires a change in mind sets among garment factory owners.

In a society where one is judged by their economic value, where families still prefer male children because they are perceived to be superior income earners, being female, extreme poor and disabled puts one at the bottom of the food chain. People with disabilities are excluded from the job market based on social prejudice and a lack of understanding of their capabilities. In such an environment people with disabilities can't help but see themselves as incompetent too. As exemplified by Shumi, another physically disabled shiree-ADD beneficiary, who till this point never attempted to work because she thought she couldn't. She had dropped out of school in class 5 because the other children teased her and she felt like there was no point. She is surprised to finds herself in this new position; that she can get so much work done efficiently, that her employers and colleagues are sensitive to her need for extra support, that she is able to contribute to her family's income and take care of her parents.

Shanti Begum at her work station. Photo: Courtesy

We are quick to categorise someone with a disability but fail to recognise how we are disabled in our thinking. The shiree-ADD project is attempting to change generalisations about disability by raising awareness and arming around 700 individuals with disabilities with the skills, knowledge and capital to become self sufficient. This includes teaching them the necessary skills and then giving them access to employment opportunities in the mainstream economy. The project also targets trade bodies like BGMEA, BKMEA, FBCCI, and try to impact policies so the work environment is more disability friendly. Training is given on sewing, binding, packaging, assembling, pasting etc depending on employment potential and then go on to link them with the respective industries like the garment factories, shoes factories, etc. Others who might not be able to work in factories will receive training on small businesses, block printing, food processing, etc.

Still in its very preliminary stages, the shiree-ADD project has been successful in getting six out of their 10 beneficiaries hired in various garment factories. They talked to influential people in the community, sent letters to the garment factories regarding the state of disability and their potential to work, then set up a meeting with the beneficiaries in the factories. Once they were able to demonstrate their skills and negotiated terms of reasonable accommodation, they were hired.

Speaking to the managers at Tunic Fashion, they were surprisingly positive and sensitive. Along with the ADD beneficiaries they had hired some other employees with disabilities and even promoted an employee with a speech disability to be a chief operator. He had been an exemplary worker and they had figured out a comfortable way of communicating with each other. Zillur Rahman Milon, one of the administrators at Tunic Fasion said, “If we don't give them a chance, then where will they go? They are extremely polite and hardworking and have the same level of productivity as the other workers. Allowing them to use the elevator is not costing me anything, so why should we discriminate?”

The picture of disability in Bangladesh is not a happy one. Though we have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, little has been done to accommodate the demands made in them. There are still too many buildings without ramps, none of our modes of public transport are disability friendly and the government schools might accept children with special education needs, but do nothing to provide supplementary support. We still don't see how people are made disabled by the barriers in the environment. However, we have definitely come a long way and things are much better than they used to be.

The new MoUs signed by BGMEA that is encouraging garment factories to hire people with disabilities, hints that the mindset about disability is changing. We are finally allowing them into the private sector, and recognising them as contributing members of the community.

Sadaf Saaz Siddiqui of Sidko Apparels is also a strong proponent of this initiative; “Given the right skills and training, and an enabling environment, there is no reason why people with a capability to do the job required, should be left out, and unable to fulfill their potential. This may need strategic interventions for them to focus on their strengths in order to overcome barriers of their own limitations, or socially constructed barriers. We really feel strongly, after observing the initial pilot training outcomes, that given a chance, people with disabilities could become valued employees of the RMG sector.”

Of course, not all the garment factories have been open to the idea. Many cannot break out of their rigid mindsets about disability and see it as a risky move to hire them. They are worried about compromising productivity or spending the extra resources on reasonable accommodation; which is a common but uninformed perception. It is difficult to break out of norms that have been so ingrained into us for years, so the companies that have managed to put their generalisations aside and give these people a chance deserve a lot of credit. Asides from Tunic Fashions, SRT Fashions, Sharoj Fashions, Polka Dot Fasions, Opex Apparels and Banex Apparels Ltd have also interviewed and hired people with beneficiaries and are inspirational examples of companies that take their social responsibility seriously. Jatra Handicrafts and Sidko Apparels are looking to do the same. Hopefully, more businesses in the private sector will follow their examples and open their hearts and minds to people with different capabilities. We are making slow but significant progress, baby steps that will become giant strides to a more tolerant and accepting society.

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