Twenty-five percent of the nearly 1 billion people living with disabilities around the world live at or below the poverty line. Unfortunately, these roughly 250 million people are more likely to face obstacles ranging from finding employment to outright discrimination. However, digital technologies offer the potential to expand employment opportunities for people living with disabilities, allowing them to realize their capabilities, expand their networks, and increase their mobility through digital accessibility. DAI, implementing activities under the Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership (DCCP), is designing activities that create employment opportunities and support networks for people living with disabilities in countries such as Cambodia and India.

Through its work with the Digital Asia Accelerator (DAA) and the South Asia Regional Digital Initiative (SARDI), DAI recognizes disability as a cross-cutting issue and strives to provide equitable access to digital tools for people with a wide array of abilities, including those who are hard of hearing, have visual impairments, speech impediments, or other learning, developmental, and psychosocial disabilities. DAI’s grantee organizations, consultants, and partners are making significant steps towards digital inclusion through the facilitation of trainings, workshops, and mentoring groups specifically targeted and tailored for people living with disabilities.

Combatting Social Barriers While Raising Income—Leaps in Cambodia

“Disability is a significantly underserved sector and by targeting businesses for or run by people with disabilities, there is significant flow on impact on broader ecosystem development.” – Agile Development Group

In Cambodia, people living with disabilities make up about 15 percent of the population, with many living in rural areas. Services to assist them remain limited as organizations and clinics are primarily concentrated in urban areas. Other factors of education, discrimination, and employment also often limit opportunities. Laws relating to the employment of people living with disabilities lack enforcement and come with little to no penalties for non-compliance.

However, digital technologies can offer a more sustainable economic and social outlook for people living with disabilities in Cambodia, especially for those who live in rural areas. One DAA grantee that works to improve the digital skills of people living with disabilities is the Agile Development Group, a social enterprise that creates economic opportunities and independent lifestyles for people living with disabilities, thus combatting the social and economic barriers they face due to their disability, age, or gender. To bring people living with disabilities to the forefront of digital development, Agile provides a range of services, including advocacy and product design services for wheelchair accessible tuk-tuks and prosthetic devices. Through DAA’s grant, Agile implemented a “Digi-Skills” training series for 16 entrepreneurs with disabilities and 25 employees of disability social enterprises. These courses were customized for each entrepreneur and offered intensive training and coaching on how to use platforms such as Facebook to market a business, Zoom to host calls, and how to take photos in order to better advertise a business online.

Following Agile’s trainings, several participants said they have developed the tools necessary to overcome their challenges. Chat Srey Nean, a participant and online seller said that “after [she] got the training in digital skills, [her] sales have been very good. [She] has a better income than before and knows how to use many different types of software and programs.”

The trainings have also had a profound impact on Som-Yat. Som-Yat has a disability that greatly affects her mobility. Through an introduction to social media and digital platforms in 2019, Som-Yat began selling cosmetic products online after learning about e-commerce from other merchants. After learning about the Digi-skills training, Som-Yat applied and was accepted into the program. Through the program, Som-Yat learned how to create a Facebook page, online event invites, and engaging content to increase sales. With an active support system created by program facilitators, she greatly boosted her confidence and skills, enabling her to grow her online business and income. After putting her new skills to work, Som-Yat began to see serious results when her monthly income increased fourfold—from $50 to $200.

Picture digital upskilling pwd.png Photo caption: Som-Yat received intensive training and coaching on how to effectively use Facebook to market her cosmetics. After putting her new skills to work, she began to see serious results when her monthly income increased fourfold—from $50 to $200. Photo Credit: Agile Development Group/DAI

Breaking Stigmas and Serving Others—The Case of Digital Sarthaks in India

“Even though I’m differently -abled, now I don’t feel like I am a burden to the community,” said Alpna Sharma as she reflected upon the impact of the Digital Sarthak program through the Digital Empowerment Foundation. Through the SARDI activity, the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) implements sustainable digital interventions to bridge the digital divide in rural and remote locations of India, and empower communities with digital literacy, digital tools, and last- mile connectivity efforts. To implement these interventions, 100 trained volunteers known as Digital Sarthaks lead capacity-building activities to establish digital centers for women entrepreneurs across seven states in Northern India, overseeing the training of 10,000 women entrepreneurs across 10 districts with 100 digital centers. These centers serve as spaces for women entrepreneurs and community members to gain digital skills and access digital services.

Pappu Kanwar, a Digital Sarthak who lives with a walking disability in the Barmer district in the state of Rajasthan, shares how, after being selected as a Digital Sarthak, not only did her digital skills improve, but her overall confidence increased. Now, she works to expand opportunities to other women entrepreneurs; some of whom also have disabilities. Under the program, she has received a smartphone, printer, and has a strong internet connection that allows her to deliver trainings to 100 women entrepreneurs across her region. Having access to the digital center allows her to assist others in her community to electronically complete forms including electricity and water bills as well as use photocopying and printing equipment. In addition to her work as a Digital Sarthak, Kanwar is also a self-help group motivator and leads four different groups in her community. The Digital Sarthak program has also impacted the life of Sudama Mahto. Despite being educated, Mahto’s employment opportunities as a person with a disability were quite limited, resulting in financial hardships. Before an introduction to the Digital Sarthak program, Mahto worked at a grocery store to support his family. However, after meeting one of DEF’s field coordinators, he expressed interest in the program and soon was equipped and trained as a Digital Sarthak. The equipment Mahto received enabled him to provide digital services to his village through a community center that he established. Mahto continues to advocate for accessibility of information and has also become a mentor for women entrepreneurs in his community. By training others on how to use digital tools, Mahto has broken the stigma that people living with disabilities cannot serve others.

Bringing People Living with Disabilities to the Forefront

For inclusive digital development to be fully realized, people living with disabilities must be actively included. DAI grantees, the Agile Development Group and the Digital Empowerment Foundation, have demonstrated the impact of applying the principles of digital inclusion and accessibility to disability. Not doing so will only further exacerbate the digital divide as marginalized groups, especially people living with disabilities, will not have the skills nor tools necessary to access digital services. The work of these local organizations demonstrates only a few of the many ways in which we can make inclusive digital development that brings people living with disabilities into the conversation a reality.