Interview

Volume 8 Issue 5 - March 01, 2011

“The greatest roadblock employers face is finding qualified candidates with disabilities,” Debra Perry

Debra Perry
Debra Perry

The International Labour Organization (I.L.O.) has recently started the I.L.O. Global Business and Disability Network – a platform to bring employers and employers’ organisations together on disability issues. In the past one year, this 35 multinational companies have joined the Network, which in turn could have a reach in more than 150 countries across the world. The I.L.O. has already organised three regional inaugural planning meetings for the Network – in Paris, New York and more recently in Bengaluru. Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. caught up with Debra Perry, Senior Specialist Disability, Skills and Employability Department, about the journey so far, the goals of the Network, the roadblocks and the way forward.

D.N.I.S.: What is the idea behind the I.L.O. Global Business and Disability Network?

Debra Perry: The I.L.O. Global Business and Disability Network is composed of multinational companies and employer or business networks that have interest or expertise on issues related to disability and employment, the development of products and services and corporate social responsibility. It also includes representatives of disabled peoples’ organizations and non-government organizations. The latter will serve as resources to the Network.

The Network has four basic objectives:

1. Sharing knowledge and information about good practices regarding disability inclusion;

2. Developing joint products and services to help the members become more adept at addressing disability issues;

3. Strengthening I.L.O. employers’ organisations (which are our constituents on the country level) or other business networks, so that they can provide technical advisory services to their members (often inclusive of small and medium-sized enterprises); and

4. To link members to I.L.O. activities on the ground related to disability.

We also hope to link the Network members to resources that may include disabled persons’ organisations, non - governmental organisations or other possible partners to help them reach their disability goals.

D.N.I.S.: How much work has been done till now to get this Network started?

Debra Perry: To date we have published ‘Disability in the Workplace: Company Practices’, a compilation of 25 profiles describing company best practices. We are now developing a similar publication to highlight what employers’ networks and organisations are doing.

We have recruited 35 multinational companies, and 13 employer organisations or networks as members and held three planning meetings to solicit input from them on how to structure the network, fund it, develop communication mechanisms and address other matters. We now need to move forward on the recommendations and ideas that emerged from the three planning meetings.

I should note that National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (N.C.E.P.D.P.) helped us in making some initial connections to companies and groups in India and we look forward to continued collaboration.

D.N.I.S.: How many countries has it reached till now?

Debra Perry: As a global network targeting multinational companies and employers’ and business networks, it is not our purpose to work directly on the country level, except in cases where companies or others link to I.L.O. or other projects on the ground. But, in the process of developing, we have seen some impact at the country level.

The member companies have offices in many, many countries and it is hoped that as we share knowledge and build connections, a very large number of countries will be reached. The members currently represent 13 countries in terms of where the company is headquartered; however that is only a small reflection of possible impact at country level. A multinational member may work in as many as 80 to 100 countries or many more!

Already, companies are asking for linkages and information, sometimes at the country level. For example, we have provided information on laws and policies to a European-based company within that regional context. Another European-based multinational is approaching an American company to seek guidance in how to establish a disabled employee network (D.E.N.), a company approach to building disability awareness and getting input from disabled employees or those interested in disability issues. One company, based in the U.S., recently asked about Indian resources for an employee who was based in India and started to lose their vision.

The inaugural planning meetings were held in Paris, with Accor Hotels as the host; in New York City with the United States Council for International Business as the host; and most recently in Bengaluru, India with Wipro sponsoring the event. So we have built awareness among members operating in these countries and regions, although the primary purpose of the meetings was to solicit input to develop the Network.

We have also just started linking companies to some I.L.O. activities at country level in Thailand and Bangladesh. We are already seeing impact in Bangladesh where a training project has helped to streamline and improve an N.G.O. training programme which provides trainees with disabilities to major factories which serve a European-based garment manufacturer.

D.N.I.S.: How can one become a member of this Network?

Debra Perry: Interested multinational companies or employers’/business organisations can contact me at perry@ilo.org or at +41.22.799.6258.

Disabled peoples’ organisations have been represented at meetings through global peak bodies or regional and national disabled persons’ organisations and will be part of the eventual Network structure. We also will welcome regional resource advisors or N.G.O. networks that focus on disability issues.

While we want to make sure the voice of disabled persons is heard in the group and welcome the input of N.G.O.s, we want to ensure the business/employer focus of the Network, which is critical to its success.

D.N.I.S.: Is there any thought into the structure that this Network will follow vis-à-vis regional offices, etc.?

Debra Perry: We hope to establish regional networks but right now are planning a global structure. If we can secure the funding, we will add regional coordinators.

Due to regional issues, travel constraints and the fact that many companies are organised regionally, we do see a need for a regional approach. As we develop, we hope to hold similar meetings in Africa and Latin America.

D.N.I.S.: Are there any particular issues regarding employment of persons with disabilities that this Network will focus on initially?

Debra Perry: This will be determined by company interest and so far, that has been related to knowledge sharing. So, we aim to get a website and communication plan in place as soon as possible. Companies want to know what others are doing to effectively address persons with disabilities in their workplaces and how to attract qualified candidates with disabilities. Establishing methods of information sharing and communication will be our primary focus initially.

We also see an initial interest in securing a database of country-based laws. With the implementation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, laws are being amended and new ones developed, which will have an impact on how companies do business at the country level. Many companies have also expressed an interest in harmonising their diversity and disability practices regardless of the country of operation, so work in this area of adhering to national and international standards may also be a focus of early activities.

D.N.I.S.: What are the challenges that you have faced?

Debra Perry: The challenges we have faced have largely been internal as we have started the Network without any outside funding, using only the I.L.O.’s regular budget and staff, for the most part. Since we have determined that there is interest and the time is right for this initiative, we are now moving forward with fund raising plans for a permanent and dedicated Secretariat. The Network is about relationships and building relationships takes time, energy and the human touch.

D.N.I.S.: What do you think are the major roadblocks in promoting employment opportunities for people with disabilities especially in developing countries like India?

Debra Perry: The greatest roadblock employers tell me that they face is finding qualified candidates. We need to pursue the opening of education, training and work experience opportunities for people with disabilities so that they can qualify for jobs.

At the same time, many disabled job seekers who have qualifications tell me that they find it difficult to get employed. So we need to address the barriers they face, be they accessibility, transport, information, policy or negative attitudes.

In developing countries there is the added challenge of a developing economy, which often means that many people are relegated to jobs in the informal economy, where they may lack rights, protection and job security. Increasing opportunities for viable self-employment and income-generation must be considered as well as ensuring the necessary protections.

D.N.I.S.: Finally, how soon can we see the official launch of this Network?

Debra Perry: We hope to have an official launch in the latter part of 2011. First, we want to get our website up and running. We will keep you informed and appreciate the opportunity to share what we are doing!

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