Andreas König

It is a truism to say that people with disabilities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and increasingly in Central and Eastern Europe, are among the poorest of the poor. They have little or no access to school education, vocational training or economic resources. The strategies and tools used to give them occupational skills and to help them find jobs are therefore not so very different in the first instance from those generally employed in development work to promote employment and combat poverty. Dr Andreas König is a qualified educationist with many years’ experience as an adviser in the fields of vocational training, employment promotion and integration of people with disabilities. He works for the Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Misereor and Caritas International, among other bodies. This report is a revised and expanded version of an article which appeared in issue 11/2004 of the journal Behinderung und Dritte Welt.

Andreas König

Employment Promotion for People with Disabilities in the Context of the Fight against Poverty

There are many causes of poverty. These certainly include economic and social defects such as unequal distribution of prosperity, unfair power structures, bad governance, lack of gender equality and other forms of discrimination. The fight against poverty is therefore an eminently political task. If poverty is to be alleviated over the long term, there must be the political will to combat the causes resolutely, the civil society has to be actively involved, and the financial and technical potential of the private sector needs to be mobilized. (BMZ: Combating Poverty – A Global Task: Action Programme 2015, Bonn 2001).

“The Fight against Poverty” and “Employment Promotion”

Poverty is defined not solely in terms of low income. The lives of the poor are characterized by a want of basic material needs such as food, shelter and land, by social exclusion, voicelessness and powerlessness, by lack of self-confidence, violation of human dignity, lack of access to basic social infrastructures (such as rural roads, transport and water), by illness and by want of educational opportunities. The fight against poverty needs to bear all these factors in mind if it is to change the lives of people with disabilities and their families over the longer term.

Employment promotion is generally taken to mean a whole set of measures to create and maintain sustainable, market-oriented income generating jobs. For poor people, whether with disabilities or not, these are increasingly to be found in the largely unprotected, informal economy. This means instability, wages that are generally low, unregulated working conditions, unsafe and often unhealthy working environments, low productivity and little innovation. These are the kinds of jobs done by the Indonesian packer working as a day-labourer in a port in Java, or the street-seller struggling to earn a meagre commission from peddling toilet paper to car-drivers in Accra.

Employment promotion comprises such important elements as

  • teaching practical skills (informal vocational training or skills development) . formal vocational training, usually for school-leavers

  • instruction in basic entrepreneurial skills

  • compensatory basic education, including functional literacy

  • encouragement of crafts

  • fostering of small enterprises

  • facilitation of access to micro-credits

Employment promotion is an integrated approach combining these elements. Specific schemes develop out of the recognition that the only way to respond to the needs and potential of the target group is by linking training suited to the economic and technological circumstances with elements of small enterprise development (how to set up a business, loan facilitation, business advice). This targeted approach for particular groups and fields of activity would appear to meet the many all-embracing needs of precisely those target groups who are living on the edge of survival. People with disabilities are without question among them. The need for support and the exact mixture of the various elements have to be determined in accordance with the starting point of the specific target groups, the social and political context and market conditions.

In the so-called developing countries, and increasingly in the countries in transition in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, many people with disabilities are literally on the street, regardless of whether they have completed their education or – more frequently – not. They are seldom reached by existing (formal) training institutions, which generally set entry requirements that have the effect of excluding many people with disabilities. They therefore have little realistic chance of earning a living. They are excluded from the processes that mould education and the labour market. The resultant increasing social, economic and political exclusion is the real disability.

Employment promotion can, however, do much to give people with disabilities a chance in life and to open up opportunities for finding a job and earning an income through comprehensive training that is appropriate and responsive to living conditions and market requirements. This means taking into account the following principles in the design and implementation of employment promotion measures:

  • All training must reflect labour market needs, including the needs of the informal economy.

  • The content and methods of the training must be specific to the target group, fit the social environment and encourage and make use of the potential for self-help.

  • The requisite target group orientation needs to be complemented by counselling, especially for those who were or are excluded from the formal education system.

  • Training in employment-related skills must be treated in the broad sense; what is needed is integrated concepts that can include compensatory functions for those with disabilities. Among these are the acquisition of key skills in the field of social, interactive and emotional learning.

  • The teaching of technical and craft skills needs to be matched by reinforcement of occupationally relevant personal, social and entrepreneurial skills.

  • Empowerment, the ability to formulate and defend one’s own interests, needs to be seen as the overall basic principle.

The development of a coherent national strategy for vocational training and inclusion of people with disabilities is desirable, and is a precondition for effective implementation of the above measures in initial and continuing training and labour market integration. It would include strengthening local providers and networks, providing training for staff and developing innovative approaches to the social and economic integration and participation of people with disabilities themselves. Such an approach is increasingly being adopted in practice in and for the training of the poor and disadvantaged youth. Usually, however, people with disabilities are not explicitly covered by such programmes.

Adaptation to Circumstances: The Key to Any Intervention

It is a feature of any promising approach to employment promotion that it is appropriate to the current circumstances of the target group. 

Two aspects need to be borne in mind. The first is the individual circumstances of the person and his/her family: in the case of people with disabilities this means their individual starting potential (level of education, skills and physical dexterity acquired to date, mobility, possible need of support, etc.) and the resources, knowledge and skills available in the family (the capital), the ability and readiness to offer support to the family member with the disability, and so on. Involving the family member with a disability in some productive activity already undertaken by the family is particularly likely to prove successful. For those with mental disabilities, this is often the only possibility of earning. The second aspect relates to the family’s economic context: the products and services in demand in the local markets, the skills which may offer a livelihood and an income, and the purchasing power of the market.

If the information thus obtained is put together, prospects can be created for successful employment promotion for and with people with disabilities.

Overarching Principles and Concepts

All employment promotion measures must face up to one piece of common knowledge: people will only get jobs if training and support are embedded in a suitable economic and employment policy. Wherever there is a need to influence relevant macro-economic conditions, work has to be done at the relevant points. If tax legislation favours capital-intensive investment, for example, it is unlikely that new job opportunities will be created in the short term.

Against this background, the following guiding principles apply to the (formal and informal/traditional) providers of occupationally relevant training, as defined above:

  • The need for support and promotion is defined by the initial situation of specific target groups, the socio-political framework and market conditions.

  • Account must be taken of local needs if income-generating employment is to be created. This means that the target groups must be enabled to undertake at least a rudimentary analysis of their environment, including the planning of marketing.

  • The requirements of the local environment govern the nature and content of the (compensatory) basic education and training provided. This is of particular relevance to people with disabilities, who have frequently had no chance to attend school.

  • Promotional measures should not be directed solely to one specific activity or occupation, but must be developed for a specific region and must be flexible enough to be applied to a range of fields of employment.

  • Promotional provision should be planned as far as possible together with the relevant target group, with awareness of its specific situation and account taken of this in designing and implementing the employment promotion measures. This will make it possible to match their potential and needs as closely as possible to the requirements of the local market.

  • Every individual scheme should be planned and carried out as far as possible with existing self-help groups. In the process, use should be made of the capacities of other formal and informal training bodies and advisory services.

  • Alongside technical craft skills, agricultural and/or service skills, the basics of entrepreneurial thinking and action also need to be taught.

  • Access to help with setting up businesses and small loans must be made easier for those who have the requisite potential. This includes advice and support in the areas of organization, planning and finance.

  • The promotional measures must be adequately equipped and must be addressed to a specific target group. This often means that training needs to be near to where people live; this is crucial for those people with disabilities whose mobility is restricted. And young mothers can frequently only take advantage of promotional activities if child care is available.

  • Jobs largely done by girls and women should be included in vocational training at various levels of skill. This kind of approach can improve their chances of finding work and their occupational mobility. New job areas for girls and women need to be opened up deliberately.

  • Providers and support institutions, and their centres, need increasingly to accommodate themselves to the needs of both genders. This will have an impact in particular on the timing of provision.

  • Modular systems need to be developed and existing curricula adapted so that they match both the full range of educational needs and the requirements of the labour market. These modules should not be guided merely by narrowly technical and craft considerations, but should include other factors that can contribute to employment promotion (e.g. aspects of basic education, strengthening of life skills, fostering of entrepreneurial skills, etc.). Modular provision does give people with disabilities suitable access to education and training; modules can be adapted to people’s own potential and pace of learning and learnt step by step.

  • Targeted awareness-raising among teachers and multipliers will enhance participation by people with disabilities in activities to promote their employment, and the lasting effects of these. This is the only way to match the employment promotion programmes of providers and support institutions as required to the needs of people with disabilities.

These principles should be applied in a process-oriented way, dynamically, flexibly and transparently. The following additional considerations should also be borne in mind.

In principle, encouraging self-employment and small enterprises is a promising strategy. It is, however, often inappropriate if the specific target group does not have enough market experience or lacks the power to hold its own in fiercely competitive markets. This will frequently be the case with people with disabilities, many of whom will have had little chance ever since childhood to think and act entrepreneurially. For this reason, this entrepreneurial thinking needs to be fostered and the basic features of entrepreneurial action learnt through practice. Self-confidence, decision-making ability, analytical thinking and willingness to take risks are attributes which can be promoted and strengthened early on through education and training of a particular type, using specific methods and subject content. It has still to be established whether existing action-oriented tools1 are so designed that they can promote the basics of entrepreneurial action among people with disabilities. At all events, women and men with disabilities who decide to work for themselves should not be left to manage their own schemes alone but should be supported through relevant advice on how to start up in business.

People with Disabilities in Employment Promotion

Employment promotion for the blind and the visually impaired, for the deaf and hard of hearing, and for young people, men and women with physical disabilities, should not be a special programme. It should always be designed and implemented as part of a wider whole.2

The principle must be that poverty alleviation and employment promotion always include alleviating the poverty and promoting the employment of women and men with disabilities – and their families.

Involvement in National Programmes

Guidelines for practical action follow from the principle that any poverty alleviation and employment promotion programme is also a programme for people with disabilities. This will help to counter the resistance, lack of awareness and helplessness often met with in integrated employment promotion for people with disabilities.

  • Information: This must be aimed at decision-makers at various levels, who rarely regard people with disabilities as part of the target group for employment promotion activities. In this case, information means first of all conveying a basic understanding of the relevance of involving people with disabilities in programmes to combat poverty and promote employment. Secondly, it also means conveying a basic knowledge of how to promote people with specific types of disability (impaired vision or hearing, etc.).

  • Advice: This should be directed on the one hand towards the providers of employment promotion measures. They need practical help to aim their provision at people with disabilities as well as others. However, advice is also needed for self-help organizations of people with disabilities, which can increasingly act as mediators between providers of relevant specific services and potential demand.

  • Assistance: This comprises training for staff in employment promotion programmes. They do not usually have the requisite knowledge and experience to give the appropriate support to people with widely differing types of disability so that the latter become able to contribute to their own income. It means adapting or creating relevant working materials which open the way for people with various types of disability to have access to and take part in employment promotion activities. People with disabilities themselves may need further assistance, in addition to adapted methods and learning materials. This will include the flexible timing of promotional programmes which has already been mentioned, and possibly transport and specific assistance (e.g. translation into sign language for the deaf, sighted readers for the blind, etc.).

Examples of the Involvement of People with Disabilities in Employment Promotion Programmes

There are already some initial examples of such integration of people with disabilities into employment promotion programmes. Under the ‘Ghana Poverty Reduction Strategy’,3 for example, a programme to combat poverty which tries expressly to address the needs of women and men with disabilities is now being devised in Ghana. In this context, the Ghanaian Ministry of Labour and Social Security has selected as part of its specialist responsibilities the two areas ‘short vocational training in the informal economy’ and ‘integration of people with disabilities’. In a pilot programme, the International Labour Organization (ILO) is advising the Ministry on the planning and implementation of individual measures. One of the aims is to involve people with disabilities in selected pilot districts in demand-oriented employment promotion programmes to be developed in those districts. This is to be done in association with local political bodies, representatives of private enterprise, trade union organizations and associations of people with disabilities.4 The ILO is currently preparing a background paper on the involvement of people with disabilities in national strategies to combat poverty. 5

The Functional Vocational Training Forum in India works on a smaller scale.6 Through financial support and help with planning, local providers are strengthened in planning and implementing employment related short vocational courses for school drop-outs and impoverished target groups. The involvement of people with disabilities is expressly welcomed and specifically promoted. Although the emphasis of this forum is on vocational short courses, links are made with other aspects of employment promotion (short courses for entrepreneurs, small business management and access to micro-credits).

Examples of other innovative programmes combating poverty by involving people with disabilities in promoting employment, may be published in a future issue of this journal.


1 The CEFE tools promoted by the GTZ and ‘Start Your Business’ run by the ILO both assume basic education, which has been withheld from many people with disabilities in developing countries. The handbook developed by the ILO for specific target groups, ‘How to start a small business: A Manual for Community Workers Assisting Persons with Disabilities’ has not been validated and updated. ‘Know About Business’ (KAB), developed by the ILO to foster entrepreneurial thinking and action among secondary school pupils, might potentially be used successfully in work with specific target groups of people with disabilities.
2 Those with mental disabilities need to be involved in employment promotion in their family surroundings.
3 This programme in Ghana is the national application of the ‘Poverty Reduction Strategy Programme’ (PRSP) initiated by the World Bank. PRSP is the current attempt by the World Bank socially to “cushion” the current structural adjustment processes in the economy of developing countries and countries in transition. As part of the scheme, loans are granted for this purpose.
4 Contact:
5 Hans Roeske: Including Disability Issues in National Poverty Reduction Strategies (working title, to appear in autumn 2004). Contact:
6 Contact:

Adult Education and Development


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