When 11-year-old Ibrahim, a young student in Jordan, failed his final exams at the end of sixth grade, he felt ashamed, frustrated and hopeless. His teachers blamed him for “not trying,” but as much as he wanted to, he struggled with an undiagnosed learning disability. His school gave him the option to repeat the sixth grade or drop out. When Ibrahim broke the news to his dad, he was punished and told to find a job. Ibrahim spent the next five years working eight hours a day, six days a week, as a shop assistant.
Children with disabilities, like Ibrahim, face many challenges in getting a good education. Around the world, many children are forced to find work because schools are not accessible or accommodating. Issues of poor transportation, lack of awareness, and inaccessible buildings often take capable kids out of the school house and put them into the workforce.
Yet, the barriers are not only in schools, but also in the labor market. Discrimination and bias, along with poor accessibility to transportation and buildings, often keep persons with disabilities from finding and keeping good jobs. Without access to an education and the opportunity to decent work, these vulnerable workers are therefore more likely to be subject to exploitation and forced labor.
The United States is a global leader in promoting the rights of individuals with disabilities and the department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs – ILAB for short – seeks to end workplace exploitation of all vulnerable populations, including persons with disabilities. ILAB draws on the expertise of the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy – or ODEP – and key U.S. government leaders to advocate for policies and programs that support solutions to the challenges facing the international disability community.
Recently, ILAB partnered with ODEP and the State Department’s Special Advisor for International Disability Rights Judith Heumann in promoting disability and labor rights internationally. The partnership successfully advocated for the labor and employment rights of persons with disabilities and the mainstreaming of disability in key policies and programs adopted at the 2014 meeting of labor and human resource ministers representing the 21-member economies of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, a key regional multilateral organization.
In addition to promoting policies in international organizations, ILAB awards grants which provide informal and alternative education services to children engaged in or vulnerable to child labor. These programs are tailored to address the specific educational needs of child laborers, many of whom have disabilities. Two projects in particular address disability by focusing on providing a range of educational and vocational training services and access to livelihood opportunities for children and families affected by disability in Panama and Ecuador. These projects support the governments in developing policies, laws, and social and educational programs that confront the challenges related to disability and child labor issues, and have built the capacity of government to ensure access to education and employment services for these children and families.
HIV/AIDS is a leading cause of disability in many countries around the world, and ILAB has a long history of promoting initiatives to combat employment discrimination on the basis of HIV status. From 2000 to 2014, ILAB worked in collaboration with governments, workers, and employer organizations and funded workplace initiatives in 35 countries to combat discrimination against HIV-positive workers. By empowering workers and companies with information on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, the projects helped to break down the barriers caused by discrimination, promoted access to effective prevention efforts, and aided companies in reducing the employment and labor costs resulting from HIV/AIDS-related illness and death.
These global efforts make a big difference in the lives of so many people affected by disability, like Ibrahim. At age 16, Ibrahim found Promising Futures, a program funded by ILAB in Jordan. The program connected Ibrahim to a counselor, who helped identify and connect him to the resources and services he needed to manage his learning disability. His counselor also worked with his family, especially his dad, to help them understand why Ibrahim struggled and how to support him. Thanks to Promising Futures, Ibrahim was able to get back in school and now has a chance at a brighter future.
Promoting the rights and protections of persons with disabilities around the world is a priority for the department and ILAB, and there is much more work to be done. ILAB is building on these experiences to mainstream disability issues across a range of policy and technical assistance efforts. By striving to address the needs of persons with disabilities, ILAB is advancing the labor rights of some of the most vulnerable populations in the world, and working to ensure everyone has an opportunity to participate in the global economy.
Thomas Richards is the chief of staff of the department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs