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Role of Higher Education in Building Stable Careers for Persons with Disabilities

By Meenu Bhambhani

When Nandini and Shilpaa invited me to pen an article for the latest issue of Café Dissensus, I kept wondering as to what I should write about which has not been written before. They made my task little less complex by suggesting that I write about my experience in the space of employability and employment of persons with disabilities in the Information Technology industry. So what I am writing here is my personal experience of working closely with non-government organizations (NGOS), individuals with disabilities, and parents of individuals with disabilities, recruiters, trainers and operations managers of the organization where people got placed. These are my observations and reflections of past nine years. The conclusions are anecdotal and hence I would refrain from generalizing the findings. What I am trying to drive home are a few thoughts that need to be kept in mind when building a case for hiring and retention of persons with disabilities and the various factors that play a significant role in building lasting careers for people with disabilities:

  1. It is a myth that hiring people with disabilities increases retention for companies as people with disabilities are more loyal and tend to stick for long.
  2. There is a difference in the careers of candidates with secondary school education and those who are university graduates as the dropout rate is higher for people with disabilities without college education.
  3. Disability and “privilege” go hand in hand in ensuring stable careers—a point that is missed when advocating for tapping into the “untapped talent pool. The argument about untapped talent pool misses the point of “access to privilege and resulting opportunities for a limited number of potential candidates with disabilities”[1].

I started working in the space of disability employability and inclusion in 2007 when I joined a mid-tier IT company in Bangalore. This company is an IT solutions provider, offering Applications, Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), and Infrastructure services globally through a combination of technology knowhow, domain, and process expertise. It has various business verticals which include banking and financial services, software applications development, infrastructure services, and enterprise services. When I joined I did not know where to start—by changing the infrastructure or by working with managers to change mindsets, or both? All these seemed very uphill tasks. The managers insisted on making infrastructural changes first in order to facilitate employment of people with disabilities. Training teams were apprehensive about the learning capacities of people with sensory impairments. Somewhat of a chicken and egg story! Sourcing candidates was a huge challenge. The narrative used by a lot of NGOs was that there is an enormous ‘talent pool’ waiting to be tapped but no one was looking at that pool. The NGOs further argued that if companies looked at this talent pool their worries about attrition would be taken care of. But where were the qualified/hirable candidates? We approached non-profits working in the area of disability employment, Special Employment Exchanges[2] and Vocational Rehabilitation Centers[3] (agencies set up by Government of India for facilitating employment for people with disabilities), and shared open vacancies with various job portals, but very few candidates seemed to show up. We organized our first focused recruitment drive in July 2007. Nearly 60 people walked in for an international voice process but only 7 were selected and the candidates selected were only good enough for a domestic voice process. The walk-in to selection ratio for software engineers was 10:1.

We began by undertaking a skill mapping of the various processes to see where systems could be modified to accommodate people with sensory impairments. I personally conducted disability sensitization workshops across all locations for managers, trainers, and recruitment teams. Instead of relying on NGOs alone, we tried reaching out to this talent pool through mainstream media but it was a challenge to get big numbers of qualified and skilled candidates as there was a need to hire professionally qualified engineering graduates or university graduates. Over the years, we also realized that candidates with disabilities who were professionally qualified did not come through the NGO route. They were placed through the campus placement system. Where we had to work with NGOs was primarily to find low skilled candidates with disabilities who had completed or not completed secondary education.

Over the years, when we looked at the attrition data there were some glaring facts that stood out. Attrition rate of people with or without disabilities was pretty much the same especially in the low skilled and low paid jobs. Despite training the candidates for over six months, these candidates could not be up-skilled and they could not retain their jobs. On the other hand, professionally qualified or university graduates were not only able to retain their jobs, but spent considerable time in a role, got timely promotions, and moved up the career path. On an average, professionally qualified candidates with disabilities spent over 3 years before moving to a better paying job or a bigger role in some other company. An informal conversation with a few of them also revealed that candidates with professional degrees or post-secondary education were not first generation learners. Their parents and siblings were also university educated and were in jobs that paid reasonably well.

As I was looking for references on the importance of higher education for persons with disabilities, I hardly came across any literature that gave data on the difference higher education made to the lives of persons with disabilities. There was more literature available on how to make higher education and campuses more accessible and inclusive for students with disabilities. In the Online Archive of California, there is an interview of Catherine Campisi, former Deputy Director of California Department of Rehabilitation, 1992, where she states:

“The research shows really clearly, the national research, that like all individuals, and especially for under-represented individuals, that if you’re talking about both employment and wages, that attainment of higher education degrees make a significant difference in persons with disabilities and other minority groups to, number one, work, and number two, to be able to get wages that are more closely competitive to their counterparts that are not minorities….Again, if we’re talking about integration, if we want people with disabilities to become taxpayers, if we want people to get into the professions and be able to be mentors and all that for other people with disabilities, higher education is one of the key paths for success in those areas”[4]

The latest Census 2011 data (although the Census data is always contested by activists) on higher education levels for persons with disabilities in India confirms the limited access for students with disabilities. According to a report published in the Deccan Herald dated July 16, 2016, “Of the 2.68 crore disabled population, 1.46 crore (54.5%) are literates while 1.22 crore are illiterates. When it comes to disabled women, the rate of illiteracy is much higher at 55.4% compared to 37.6% of men… Only 8.5% among literate disabled managed to get a degree, as per Census 2011. However, the figure for 2001 was 6%. While 9% of the literate disabled men got degrees or above, the figure for women was 7.7%. In 2001, it was 6.6% and 4.6% respectively. Of the 2.68 crore disabled, only 12.46 lakh had completed degree or have qualifications beyond that, indicating that there is a long way for the country to go on getting more disabled people to higher education”.[5]

Several research studies have confirmed that as economies grow, disability does not go away. In fact, the World Bank India Study[6] has given a comparative data of OECD (high income) countries with low income countries indicating high prevalence of disability in developed countries. In the last decade, India’s economy grew at the rate of over 8%. However, the outcomes of a growing economy were not necessarily helpful to persons with disabilities. The anecdotal evidence from my experience and even the Census 2011 figures around higher education for persons with disabilities suggest that more research is needed on how access to quality higher education makes a significant impact to the lives and families of persons with disabilities. Perhaps it would alter the discourse and lift a few generations out of the cycle of disability related deprivation and exclusion.

[2] List of Special Employment Exchanges for Physically Handicapped
[3] List of Vocational Rehabilitation Centres for Handicapped Directorate-General Of Employment And Training, Ministry of Labour
[4] II. Leadership In Higher Education Issues; Service As Deputy Director and Director, California Department of Rehabilitation, 1992 2001. Interview 2: December 17, 2001 Page 45 accessed on 25th July 2016
[5] ‘54.5% among the disabled population is literate’New Delhi, Jul 16, 2016, accessed on July 25, 2016
[6]People with Disabilities in India: From Commitments to Outcomes Human Development Unit, South Asia Region. The World Bank, July 2009

Meenu Bhambhani
is a development sector professional currently working in a leadership position (as Vice President & Head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) with a mid-tier information technology company called Mphasis. She obtained a Ph.D in English Literature from University of Rajasthan and then went on to do an MS in Disability and Human Development from University of Illinois at Chicago. Her Masters thesis captured the shift “From Charity to Self-Advocacy: The Emergence of Disability Rights Movement in India” In her current role, in addition to strategizing and implementing the Corporate Social Responsibility program across various locations of Mphasis, she also supports inclusion of persons with disabilities wherein she works towards creating awareness about equal opportunities for persons with disabilities, putting policies and systems in place to implement equal opportunity for this diverse group, recruiting persons with disabilities, establishing networks and partnerships with non-profit sector and civil society groups to provide workplace support, and to launch path-breaking initiatives that challenge the status quo vis-à-vis disability inclusion.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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