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UN Programme on Disability   Working for full participation and equality
Theme: Employment and Sustainable Livelihoods


Report of the "Seminar on employment and sustainable livelihoods of people with disabilities; issues in technology transfer, microcredit and institutional development" (United Nations, 26 April 1999)

Contributed Papers


General Assembly resolution 52/82, "Implementation of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons; towards a society for all in the twenty-first century", identifies employment and sustainable livelihoods as a priority for action to further equalisation of opportunities for persons with disabilities.

On 26 April the Division for Social Policy and Development of the United Nations Secretariat organised at United Nations Headquarters a seminar to review and discuss the role of technology transfer, microcredit and institutional development in promoting employment opportunities and sustainable livelihoods by, for and with persons with disabilities. The seminar considered international policy issues and trends and selected experiences from Africa and Latin America, which included projects supported by the United Nations Voluntary Fund on Disability.



The seminar was organised to create greater awareness of the various enabling factors and obstacles that can affect promotion of employment opportunities and sustainable livelihoods by, for and with persons with disabilities. The exchange of knowledge and experiences was expected to lead to greater networking among centres and institutions - governmental, non-governmental and private concerned with development and persons with disabilities in countries.


Seminar programme

Sr. Aurelio Fernández, Counsellor (Social Affairs), Permanent Mission of Spain and Chairman of the thirty-seventh session of the Commission for Social Development moderated the seminar.

In his opening remarks, Sr. Fernández recalled that "employment and sustainable livelihoods" was one of three priority actions identified in General Assembly resolution 52/82, "Implementation of the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons," to further equalisation of opportunities for persons with disabilities. The seminar would consider international policy issues and trends and selected experiences from Africa and Latin America, including field projects assisted by grants from the United Nations Voluntary Fund on Disability. He noted that there are number of approaches to promoting employment opportunities and sustainable and secure livelihoods. Certain were considered at the World Summit for Social Development, are incorporated in the Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action on Social Development, and are reflected in efforts to further implement the Summit commitments. New options have emerged as a consequence of developments in the global economy since the 1995 Copenhagen Summit. Introduction of any measure in practice will be conditioned by the historical development experience of the particular country, its development philosophy and relative level of development. The seminar thus was part of the ongoing dialogue on the political economy of disability. Seminar findings are expected to enrich the global body of knowledge on policy design, programme planning and evaluation from the disability perspective.

Presentations on international policy and programme issues related to employment and livelihoods of persons with disabilities were made by Dr. Margaret Snyder, Founding Director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and Fulbright Scholar at Makerere (Uganda) and private consultant; and Sra. María-Cristina Sará-Serrano, United Nations representative of Disabled Peoples' International (a non-governmental organisation) and president, Associates for International Management Services.

Dr. Snyder discussed issues and trends in gender-sensitive and disability-responsive policy design and evaluation. She noted that human rights is the critical issue concerning the situation of persons with disabilities and that gendered issues make disability a difficult task for women with disabilities. First, women often do not enjoy equal opportunities to earn their own livelihoods or have equal access to education, income and wealth. Second, the data available suggest that poverty is not gender-neutral, and that women with disabilities thus face a double burden in their pursuit of employment and sustainable livelihoods in dignity. Third, the data indicate that women with disabilities are as capable as men in creating employment opportunities. The need is to target small-scale credit and technical and managerial training opportunities to the particular requirements of women with disabilities. For instance, pilot efforts in Uganda by Whirlwind Women International - a non-governmental organisation - and the Ministry of Gender and Community Development to promote wheelchair manufacturing activities among women with disabilities has focussed on both technical training and managerial skills development. She noted the importance of women's full and effective participation in policy processes as well as a need to reorient development policy so that people's well being is the end and economic growth the means.

Sra. Sará-Serrano discussed issues and trends related to the integration of persons with disabilities in economic activities based on her experiences as the head of a private international consulting firm. She noted that people with disabilities face the same obstacles as do all people in their pursuit of economic opportunities: access to capital, technology, technical skills and managerial abilities to design and deliver viable products or services to the market. There are in addition particular obstacles that people with disabilities may face in the workplace, which include accessible work environments, transportation and communications problems and an associated need for personal assistants, and personal esteem, which is critical to realising one's full potential. New information technologies, such as the Internet, provide persons with disabilities with expanded opportunities to interact with other development actors, participate in economic decisions and gain access to non-traditional economic opportunities. People with disabilities bring special skills and values to economic pursuits. These include negotiating skills, alliance building expertise and abilities to seek solutions that are inclusive and appropriate to all. She identified three actions that were needed to bring about full and effective integration of people with disabilities in the economy. First, there is a need to ensure that people with disabilities have the same access to the factors of production as do all persons. This includes a need for non-discrimination legislation. Second, there is a need for regular consultation with organisations of persons with disabilities on plans and programmes that aim to assist their economic pursuits and improve their well being. Third, there is a need to incorporate a disability dimension in discussions on economic development issues in the concerned bodies of the United Nations.

Selected field experiences were presented by (1) Mr. Manuel Cárdenas, president of Fundación Momentum Internaciónal (FMI) of Quito, Ecuador, which is implementing agent for a Voluntary Fund-assisted project on training and production of appropriate and affordable wheelchairs in Ecuador; and (2) Dr. Bouali Chakor-Djelthia, president, and Ms. Edith Vanneuville-Zerouki, senior consultant, of Agence de Coopération Internationale pour L'intégration économique et sociale des Personnes Handicapées (ACIPH) of Montréal, Québec, Canada, which was the co-operating agent with Government of Mali for the Voluntary Fund-assisted "Western Africa regional seminar on microcredit and accessible financial services for people with disabilities (Bamako, 26-30 October 1998)".

Sr. Cárdenas was joined in his presentation by Mr. Sott Hollonbeck, Chairman of the Board, Fundación Momentum Internaciónal (a non-governmental organisation). Sr. Cárdenas discussed the need for capacity building for self-reliant design, manufacture and repair of mobility devices in Ecuador, where prior to the FMI project all wheelchairs were imported. Technology transfers, provision of small-scale credit and institutional development each had an important role to play in that process. With assistance from the Government of Ecuador and a grant from the United Nations Voluntary Fund on Disability for staff training, FMI opened in December 1997 a "Wheelchair Production Facility" at Quito. The Facility both produces wheelchairs appropriate to conditions in Ecuador and trains national personnel in wheelchair design, production and repair. To promote awareness of the role of mobility in promoting self-reliance of persons with disabilities, FMI joins with the Special Olympics Committee of Ecuador and the Fundación Ecuatoriana de Educación y Rehabilitación de Discapacitados (FEDEREDIS) to organise sports and persons with disabilities training workshops, sports clinics and competitions on 3 December, the International Day of Disabled Persons. Mr. Hollonbeck commented on the role of sports as a vehicle to promote wellness and self-esteem among persons with disabilities. An innovation in the 1998 sports and persons with disabilities event was introduction of workshops and clinics on health and nutrition and persons with disabilities. Commenting on the strategy to promote wheelchair production in Ecuador, Mr. Hollonbeck noted that a major concern was to produce a reliable and affordable chair that could compete with both imported and donated wheelchairs. To speed the process of developing a core group of wheelchair production specialists the Facility was assisted by a technology transfer agreement with the Eagle Sports Chairs Corp. (USA) that trained a team of Ecuadorian specialists. In Quito, training at the Facility includes technical wheelchair design and production, business management and marketing. During 1998 the Facility successfully produced 12 new wheelchair designs. The Facility markets its wheelchairs in association with people with disabilities to create employment opportunities. It is expected that a total of 16 sales and service centres will be established throughout Ecuador during 1999. Wheelchairs are priced and sold under a small-scale loan scheme appropriate to the economic means of people who need mobility devices.

Dr. Chakor stated that one of the principal concerns of ACIPH is promoting opportunities for employment and sustainable livelihoods among persons with disabilities as a means to eliminate poverty and to promote social integration. ACIPH activities focus on Western and North Africa, where activities are carried out in co-operation with Governments and non-governmental organisations. Following the 1997 "Microcredit Summit", convened by the World Bank, ACIPH initiated a process to translate the macro-strategy of the Summit into specific projects and activities appropriate to persons with disabilities in Western and North Africa. The first step was to create public awareness and support at sub-regional levels for microcredit initiatives involving people with disabilities. In co-operation with the Government of Mali, the Western Africa Federation for Persons with Disabilities (FOAPH) and the Malien Federation of Persons with Disabilities (FEMPH), ACIPH planned and organised a sub-regional "Seminar on microcredit and persons with disabilities" at Bamako from 26-30 October 1998. Since microcredit as a concept and instrument was not well know in Western Africa, the seminar aimed to inform and create awareness of microcredit, to exchange views and identify practical action to promote economic opportunities of benefit to persons with disabilities, and to build networks among interested centres and institutions. The seminar coincided with the annual "Month of National Solidarity" in Mali and served to promote awareness of the contributions that people with disabilities make in the societies in which they live. The seminar had more than 60 participants, which included representatives from 10 Western African countries - Benin, Burkina-Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal and Togo, from both governmental and non-governmental organisations in Mali, and from regional and international non-governmental organisations. Dr. Chakor identified four main findings of the seminar. First, the seminar demonstrated the considerable potential of its partners to co-operate in the field, although some partners were not aware of the knowledge and skills of one-another prior to the seminar. Second, the seminar format proved to be an effective vehicle to disseminate and exchange information on the topic of microcredit, since relevant materials in French were limited. Third, since the topic is relatively new to Western Africa seminar follow up will be facilitated by regular meetings and periodic contacts among interested parties. Fourth, information presented at subsequent seminars should focus more on institutions that provide and manage microcredit and less on organisations of persons with disabilities interested in microcredit. Since these two institutions appear to view each as a specialist body, the need was to bring them together to identify common interests and issues on which to co-operate concerning microcredit and promotion of employment opportunities among people with disabilities. Mme. Vanneuville, senior consultant to ACIPH, contributed a review of microcredit from the Anglophone and Francophone traditions to the seminar. She noted the importance of involving people with disabilities in the design of programmes and projects and of mobilising support of organisations of persons with disabilities to ensure that their activities contribute to a common goal.



One participant remarked about the situation of children with disabilities and the importance of accessible environments, education, sports and recreation opportunities in building capacities that are needed for full effective participation in social and economic life. This is considered in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Another participant noted that access to education at all levels is important for equalisation of opportunities for persons with disabilities; he added that exchanges of experience in furthering equalisation of opportunities are important and useful.

One participant asked presenters what they would like to see the United Nations do in the field of disability:

  • Mr. Hollonbeck noted the importance of national legislation on accessibility and which protects the rights of persons with disabilities. Important contributions by the United Nations would include activities to promote public awareness and support for such measures and for technical guidance on practical means of enforcing these measures.
  • Sr. Sará-Serrano observed that Disabled Peoples' International (DPI), a non-governmental organisation, still does not have access to major United Nations Conferences after more than 10 years of meetings on major international development issues. This necessarily has affected the way in which disability issues are reflected in the respective programme of action and follow up measures adopted by these conferences.
  • Dr. Chakor stated that an important activity by the United Nations would be review and assessment of progress and obstacles experienced by Governments in promoting the well being and livelihoods of persons with disabilities, including the role of microcredit. Increased support for financing of microcredit initiatives is important as well.
  • Dr. Snyder noted that United Nations makes important contributions in the field of disability by its continued support and investment in research and development related to equalisation of opportunities for persons with disabilities. These efforts could be strengthened by tapping both the private sector and concerned governmental bodies and organisations.


Concluding remarks

Sr. Fernández presented a brief summary of the main points of Seminar:

  • Technology. Technology transfer is most effect at the project level. An important role for technical co-operation is to advise and assist persons with disabilities about technology options, and introduction of technologies that are appropriate to their needs and situation. Information technologies have an especially important contribution to make to equalisation of opportunities for persons with disabilities, since they can eliminate barriers to communication and facilitate participation in social life and development.
  • Microcredit. The experiences of Ecuador and of the Western Africa sub-region indicate that access to technology and to microcredit represent essential factors in measures to promote viable employment opportunities and sustainable livelihoods by, for and with persons with disabilities.
  • Institutional development. Viable institutions result from full and effective involvement of persons with disabilities. Poverty eradication requires approaches that are gender responsive and disability sensitive.

In commenting on the summary, Mme. Vanneuville remarked about the importance of support by the United Nations for the development of networks to promote exchanges of knowledge and experiences on microcredit and technology transfer to improve the livelihoods and well being of people with disabilities. Sra. Sará-Serrano added that it is important to incorporate a gender dimension - the situation of women with disabilities - when establishing and developing network relationships. Sr. Cádenas noted that promotion of public awareness and support for norms and standards in the field of disability are important determinants of action by Governments - and by the private sector - to further equalisation of opportunities by, for and with persons with disabilities.


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