A Triple Challenge? Disability and the COVID-19 pandemic

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A Triple Challenge? Disability and the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has both challenges and potential opportunities for people living with disabilities. While they’re used to marginalization and isolation, the crisis seems to offer them the opportunity to participate in their homes, working and living “virtually”. Yet, the pandemic has been essentially a health crisis, which directly affects people with disabilities. It also worsens their economic and social vulnerabilities, making it a “triple whammy”! Skills development initiatives are responding and adapting their support, like the Education for Employment in North Macedonia (E4E@мк). The training programs for people with disabilities consider refreshing skills and learning new skills, focusing on specific needs such as assistive technology or other adjustments that are required for attending training or working at home.

Zivko Kosteski, pictured above, has an autistic spectrum disorder. If you enter the Umbrella coffee bar in the City Shopping Centre in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, you will see this 22-year-old waiter taking orders. Zivko graduated from the city’s hospitality school “Lazar Tanev”. While he repeats the customer’s order to make sure Zivko got it right, his colleague, Berat Jakupi, prepares the espresso machine for the incoming orders. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit many countries, including North Macedonia. Fast forward: The lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a mixed reaction for people, like Zivko, living with disabilities. They’re marginalized and stigmatized even under “normal” circumstances. The question then is: how are skills development initiatives responding and adapting their support to disadvantaged and vulnerable people, like those with disabilities? In this blog, we cover the story of E4E@мк of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in North Macedonia, which is implemented by Helvetas, the Macedonian Civic Education Center and the Economic Chamber of Macedonia.

Overcoming barriers with relevant skills

“Zivko’s dream came true when he started working here, at least that’s what he says and that’s what counts for me,” said Marjan Petrov, the manager of the Umbrella coffee bar. He was determined to learn how to serve and communicate with customers. He succeeded despite his disability. About 15% of the world’s population live with some form of disability, of whom 2-4% experience significant difficulties in functioning. In North Macedonia, no reliable data exists due to the lack of a system for the identification and support of people with disabilities. The employment prospects for many disabled people vary. Estimates put about 15% of the population in North Macedonia to have some form of disability. There are approximately 670 private sector companies in the country that have 9,000 employees, out of which 3,000 people with disabilities. However, overall, finding work can be tough for people with disabilities. The challenge starts early on, from access to education and skills development. Barriers include long-term physical, mental, intellectual, and sensory impairments that prevent them from participating on an equal basis with others. Together with the misperception of society, these disadvantages often result in a lack of skills, as well as low confidence, expectations, and achievement. According to Elena Kochoska, the Program Manager of Polio Plus – Movement Against Disability, a partner of the E4E project, the education system in the country doesn’t support “the creation of qualified citizens with disabilities prepared for the open labor market, which in turn contributes to creating a mentality of ‘invalidity’”. Ass. Prof. Sofija Georgievska, a psychologist at the Faculty of Philosophy of Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, agrees with this analysis, pointing out in one of her research papers that the education policy for people and especially children with disability “isn’t always consistent with the practical implications”.

Even if people with disabilities are able to get a job, limited options for accessible public transport for commuting between home and work, particularly for those who live in remote and rural areas, create additional barriers. Wrong assumptions from employers about the “productivity” of people with disabilities add to their struggles. Zivko also passed through the same experience. He started looking for a job after high school, but the usual and polite rejection was: “Right now, we don’t need serving staff”! Zivko knew that restaurants need professional staff, so he never gave up trying to become a waiter or a bartender, or even a chef. The problem is twofold. First, improvements are needed to truly include all, especially those with the most challenging disabilities, which again require innovation and quality in inclusive skills development. Like other women and men, people with disabilities need a different type of skills to meet the different challenges in life: foundation skills, technical skills, and transferable skills. Second, the transition from school to the world of work also requires working on the business case for employers, mainly improving awareness that the costs of workplace adaptations are oftentimes minimal. Despite his hospitality diploma, Zivko believed that gaining new skills would make him more competitive in the job market. In early 2019, Zivko saw his chance. The company Master Protection, through its subsidiary DownForYou, initiated hospitality training for people with disabilities under the mentorship of Professor Sofija. The training was about waitering, cooking, bartending, and customer communication, and it was adapted to the capabilities of a large group of 30 people with disabilities.

Adapting skills development to a crisis  

The E4E project supported the hospitality training that Zivko attended. Organized within E4E’s Opportunity Fund, the training resulted in the employment of 6 persons with disabilities in restaurants and hotels. This year, E4E’s Opportunity Fund became part of the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy’s Operational Program for Employment, focusing on providing support to vocational training that will lead to gainful employment. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the problems and challenges that people with disabilities are used to facing every day. The lockdown affects businesses and formal training providers, their activities, and plans put on hold. In-class training has been suspended for all training providers. Instead, digitalization has increasingly become prominent. Those training providers that had invested in digital learning were able to adapt fast to the situation and offer online training. Part of the adaptation of skills development for people with disabilities includes qualified sign language interpretation for online courses, websites that are accessible to people with different disabilities, and telephone-based services that have text capabilities for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Considering that the number of employed people with disabilities in North Macedonia is critically low, a few providers of vocational skills, disabled people’s organizations, and companies show the way by organizing vocational skills training. Yet, people with disabilities may not have the assistive technology or other adjustments that they need to attend training or work at home. Added to this, they are at increased risk in the COVID-19 pandemic due to the need for close contact with personal assistants/caregivers, as well as an increased risk of infection and complications due to underlying health conditions. The Government of North Macedonia provides all official press conferences accompanied by sign language. The use of alternative text in images is now a must and easy-to-read graphics on social media and elsewhere became quite popular. Through the Employment Service Agency, a Disabled People’s Organization is taking action to communicate with people with disabilities and/or their guardians and invite them for online communication and training sessions. The communication sessions aim to support them in a new and safe environment. Professionals like psychologists and social workers are gearing up to address fears caused by the pandemic followed by maintaining hygiene and physical distancing. For those who will go back to work, improving their mental health and preparations for re-integration into society and work environment is critical. The training sessions will be divided into two groups, for employed and unemployed people with disabilities. The first group will focus on returning to work, refreshing vocational skills, and learning new skills, available to be taught online. The second group is to focus on learning new skills online, and on job searching. This initiative will target 300 people with disabilities for two months. E4E has already supported Master Protection and Umbrella in a previous successful initiative. The Faculty of Philosophy in Skopje is coming on board to partner with the project. “If we can re-integrate at least 150 of the targeted 300 people with disability, it would be equal to 150 jobs,” says Professor Sofija.

Conclusion

It was a real uphill for Zivko and others to become part of the labor market – to get paid for their efforts, but more importantly to be a part of the society. Now, they’re back to square one. “We now see and feel the global pain of exclusion – as we plan for our future, we must insist on no one being left behind,” stresses Professor Sofija. E4E is supporting most training initiatives in an online format. This also considers the needs of people with disabilities. It’s building on its pre-COVID-19 activities which enabled people like Zivko to acquire long-lasting skills, regardless of the sector they belong to – hospitality, manufacturing, or other.

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