Leave no one offline: youth with disabilities in the digital world of work

24 March 2021

The technological revolution is remarkably transforming society. From the way we communicate, socialize, shop to the way we learn and work. These changes, which have been accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, deeply impact the world of work. With opportunities also come challenges like the imperative to leave no one behind in the digitalization process, including the more than one billion persons with disabilities across the globe.

Due to the ever-increasing importance of rapidly evolving digital technologies, the ILO Global Business and Disability Network) and Fundación ONCE, as partners of the initiative Disability Hub Europe, addressed the topic in the recently launched publication “An inclusive digital economy for people with disabilities”.  

This report describes the impacts of the digital revolution in the world of work, which can be synthesized as the creation of new jobs, obsolete occupations, changes in traditional jobs and recruitment processes, and disruptive forms of work.

This new world of work brings unprecedented opportunities but also many digital barriers to people with disabilities.

It is estimated that there are more than 200 million young people with disabilities worldwide, with about 80% of them live in developing countries.[1] The number of youth with disabilities is likely to increase due to youthful age-structures in most developing countries and medical advancements that promote higher survival rates and life expectancy after impairment-causing diseases, health conditions, and injuries.

People with disabilities generally experience lower levels of education and training than people without disabilities. In 2018, 29.4% of persons with disabilities (aged 30 to 34) received tertiary education vs. 43.8% of people without disabilities. People with disabilities also experience lower employment rates. In 2018, the employment rate for people with disabilities (aged 20 to 64) was 50.8% vs. 75% for people without disabilities.

To attain the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda and avoid deepening existing gaps and inequalities, digitalization needs to be a lever for inclusion, especially for young persons with disabilities who are seeking to enter the world of work. Policies and practices relating to the digital economy need to be inclusive of persons with disabilities. Key among them are the following issues:

  • Making Digital platforms and tools for work accessible

Digital platforms and their contents, including those used for online recruitment, need to be accessible, so users with disabilities don’t encounter barriers in accessing communication and information. Guidance on how to create and maintain accessible websites has been developed by the World Wide Web Consortium in form of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1[2]. Further, we need to ensure persons with disabilities can access and use digital tools on an equal basis with people without disabilities. For instance, software used to convene virtual meetings at work need to be able to provide live captioning for users with hearing impairments. If digital tools are not accessible, people with disabilities will encounter barriers at every step of the employment cycle: from acquiring skills, finding job opportunities, applying for a job, participating in the selection process to performing the work tasks required.[3] Many digital tools remain inaccessible and unusable for workers with disabilities, so it is imperative that mainstream digital solutions take the needs of users with disabilities into account. One way of doing so is involving users with disabilities in the development of services and products from the early design stage. Companies’ research and development departments might rely on their Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that focus on disability issues.

  • Making Assistive Technology affordable

Assistive Technology (AT) is any item, piece of equipment, software or product system that is used to maintain or improve the functional capabilities of persons with disabilities[4]. Digital AT solutions that would also enable people with disabilities to enter and stay in employment - such as apps to navigate, speech-to-text - are often too expensive in low- and middle-income countries, and often unavailable due to market failure[5]. However, there are some initiatives that are leading the way. For instance, the “Elisa Project” promoted by Fundación ONCE aims to develop an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based solution to translate voice or text into Spanish Sign Language.

  • Promoting the development of digital skills

Digital skills are in high demand, today more than ever. Thus, developing the digital skills of young people with disabilities offers great potential for increasing their participation in the labour force. 

Some company practices in promoting digital skills for people with disabilities may lead the way for others. For instance, the CISCO Networking Academy works with educators, employers, and technology experts to create courses that prepare students for the future. Launched by the international disability NGO Sightsavers in March 2021, the Bridge Academy adapts CISCO’s existing IT training to be more accessible for young people with disabilities in Kenya. After huge success in the US, where 90% of trainees graduated and got employment, Kenya’s first cohort consists of 40 young persons with disabilities. They will complete nine months of intensive theoretical and practical training, followed by a three-month internship at Safaricom -  a company member of the Kenya Business and Disability Network.

  • Collaborating for disability-inclusive digital employment

Public authorities, workers’ organizations and companies in the digital industry should work hand in hand with Organizations of Persons with Disabilities (OPDs) to ensure people with disabilities are included in the digital economy. Digital employment programmes that work together with people with disabilities in the hiring process, that connect jobseekers with disabilities with digital opportunities or that promote the work experiences of people with disabilities, e.g. through targeted internships, are all examples of initiatives that can have a direct and positive impact on the inclusion of people with disabilities in the labour market.

AmaliTech, a social enterprise in Germany, works to ensure inclusion of people with disabilities. For the assessment stage of the hiring process, AmaliTech ensures that specific needs, including the accessibility of the assessment centre, of the software used and the provision of sign language interpreters, have been suitably accommodated. AmaliTech Training Academy works with disability-related sourcing channels to ensure they also provide skills to persons with disabilities. Another example is the Digital Employment Pathway, a career support tool being tested in Kenya and Bangladesh to help persons with disabilities access paid employment opportunities online.

We are living through a technological revolution that has been accelerated by the current pandemic.To turn the challenges into opportunities, the stakeholders in the world of work must ensure that OPDs are included in relevant discussions, including on legislation and. Further, data collection and analysis must include information to monitor, evaluate and tackle the digital gap young persons with disabilities face.

It is only by designing and promoting a digital world of work inclusive of people with disabilities that we can ensure that the full professional potential and skills of people with disabilities is not wasted and contributes to the success of our workplaces and societies.

[1] https://pjp-eu.coe.int/en/web/youth-partnership/youth-and-disabilities#1

[2] https://www.w3.org/TR/WCAG21/

[3] Learn more about the ITU-ILO joint project on ensurining online recruitment platforms are accessible to all by watching the video here. 

[4] https://www.atia.org/home/at-resources/what-is-at/

[5] https://at2030.org/

This article is part of the Decent Jobs for Youth Blog Series: Youth Rights & Voices. The Blog Series highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and men in the world of work and discusses action-oriented policy responses and solutions. If you would like to comment or contribute, please contact decentjobsforyouth@ilo.org.



Natalia Privee Boudeguer

Former Junior Technical Officer in Disability Inclusion, International Labour Organization

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24 March 2021