The UAE News: Expanding Workplace Diversity To Include People With Disabilities Will Tap Into Overlooked Talent

People of determination living with disabilities across MENA are largely shut out of education and job opportunities. Yet they have as much potential, talent and drive to contribute as anyone else. Governments, employers and nonprofits in MENA are launching initiatives to open up access to education, job opportunities, and an inclusive workplace that appreciates and develops their potential. With more investment, this often-overlooked talent pool can help drive more prosperous and inclusive economies in the region.

As hard as it is for youth and women to get a job in MENA – they face the world’s largest unemployment rates compounded by COVID job losses – people with disabilities find it even harder. Only 14% of women with disabilities and 34% of men with disabilities across nine MENA countries have jobs, according to ESCWA’s report on Disability in the Arab Region 2018. Employment quota targets are not being met. Even simple literacy is out of range for many: women in rural areas with a disability have literacy rates ranging from 6.7% in Yemen to 28.4% in Palestine. The same report shows that in Morocco and Saudi Arabia men with disabilities are four times as likely to be jobless.

A range of daunting obstacles prevents access to literacy, education and employment, depending on the cognitive and physical disability as well as the context. These can include poor transportation, inaccessible schools, inadequately trained teachers, lack of specialized teacher aides, and lack of training content adapted to meet diverse needs. On top of this, people with disabilities often face stigma among classmates. Employer discrimination is also prevalent: a survey of human resources professionals in the UAE reported the misconception that hiring people with disabilities would harm business and require expensive modifications.

Despite these challenges, some people of determination across MENA are working in hospitality, retail, sales, marketing, data processing, call centers, back-office operations, food production, engineering, architecture, art, farming and other areas. Their fortitude is extraordinary. A young man from Palestine with a Diploma in Architecture who lost his leg in an accident decided not to give up, but to move on and continue his dream. He joined a training program where he learned client management, communications and time management. Now working as a freelancer in interior design, he reflects: “I love … learning new skills that can benefit me at work.”

A young Syrian refugee in Jordan, who suffers from a hearing and speaking impairment, was only able to attend a specialized school until 8th grade given the cost of private busing. With her mother’s help, she pursued her interest in beauty and self-care, and after attending a training class was able to start work. Now an aspiring entrepreneur, she reflects: “The trainers understood my needs, and I felt like I was part of the group. … It feels great to apply what I have learned on my clients and see how pleased they are with my work. My dream is to one day open my own salon.”

Recognizing our common humanity and the need for inclusion, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, launched the term “People of Determination” four years ago as part of his national strategy for empowering people with disabilities. He commented that: “Disability is in fact the inability to make progress and achievements. The achievements that people of determination have made in various spheres over the past years are proof that determination and strong will can do the impossible and encourage people to counter challenges and difficult circumstances while firmly achieving their goals.”

There are a number of initiatives underway to support and promote people of determination with access to education and employment. The UAE is leading the way with its five-year plan covering health, education and employment. The UAE plan is working to overcome stigma, provide access to specialized education, and improve access to buildings, transportation and housing. Saudi Arabia’s Tawafuq Empowerment for Employment for Persons with Disabilities reported that approximately 10% of Saudis with disabilities have been employed.

Nonprofits and employers are also expanding opportunity and inclusion for people of determination. In Egypt, the nonprofit Ebtessama launched the online platform Majidah to offer training and job matching, with over 16,000 people of determination registered. Also in Egypt Helm, which helps companies recruit employees with disabilities and promotes inclusive workplaces, has trained over 5000 corporate employees and over 1500 persons with disabilities. Education For Employment-Egypt is partnering with Helm to train and place young people of determination in retail and hospitality jobs.

Emirates National Bank of Dubai (Emirates NBD), which actively employs people of determination, issued a report on debunking myths on hiring people with disabilities, finding that 90% of UAE managers were satisfied with their performance. They overcame initial unease to quickly realize that there was nothing different about working with people with disabilities. It was noted that attrition was low and making the workplace more accessible was not always expensive. Another example of corporate engagement in this space is Careem, which launched an initiative to train and hire people who are blind and have other disabilities to work in its call center in Egypt.

Talent and drive are clearly present among people of determination. With more government initiatives and employers in the region expanding their efforts for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, more and more people of determination will be able to overcome daunting obstacles to contribute their talent and create a more prosperous and inclusive MENA region.

See EFE Senior Vice President Jasmine Nahhas di Florio's piece in The UAE News.