Myanmar: Facilitating Employment of Persons with Disabilities: A further step forward

According to the National Census in 2014, there are 2.31 million persons with disabilities (4.6% of the total population) in Myanmar with an unemployment rate cited as being as high as 85%*.
For persons with disabilities to participate in the labour force, in addition to technical and vocational competence with which persons with disabilities should be equipped, one of key factors is employers’ understanding of disabilities generally.  Since 2017, AAR Japan has been making efforts to promote employers’ understanding of persons with disabilities in cooperation with other supporting organizations for persons with disabilities.  Our efforts to establish relationships with employers through firm visits and to support persons with disabilities to find jobs has borne fruit and, in 2018, as many as 26 firms and businesses employed persons with disabilities for the first time.
AAR Japan, in cooperation with the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB), a local organization engaged in, among others, the promotion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in Myanmar, published a handbook titled “Employing Persons with Disabilities” to be used by employers in Myanmar. This was the first publication of this kind in the country. The handbook was highly appreciated by the government of Myanmar and was officially distributed in various occasions and ceremonies.  The handbook can be downloaded free of charge through the homepage of International Labour Organisation (ILO) .

 A Handbook for Employing Persons with Disabilities: The first handbook of its kind in Myanmar

* According to a survey conducted by the Myanmar government and an international NGO (2010)

Inaugural Employing Persons with Disabilities Symposium
In recent years, a number of large enterprises in Myanmar have begun  employing persons with disabilities in different ways. One example is a bank that started employing persons with disabilities to work in its call centre and security sector as part of its overall management strategy. Another example is a foreign-affiliated company in the hotel industry that works with representative organizations for peoples with disabilities to employ persons with intellectual or physical disabilities. On the other hand, however, many firms voice: “We are interested in employing persons with disabilities but don’t know how to start. We need further information.”
Many persons with disabilities also participated in the symposium.
(March 6th, 2019, Yangon)
The promotion of employing persons with disabilities requires comprehensive approach, including, among others, establishing related systems, providing training opportunities, and improving working environments.  A coordinated effort by industry, government and civil society plays a vital role.
In that context, jointly with the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB), AAR Japan organized a two-day symposium on March 6th and 7th, 2019 in Yangon to promote the employment of persons with disabilities.

Division Director of the Bureau of Rehabilitation, Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement (bottom, centre) delivered a lecture on the legal framework of employment of persons with disabilities. (March 6th, 2019)
Approximately 140 individuals participated in the symposium, including those from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population, the Myanmar Chamber of Commerce, domestic and foreign-affiliated companies, and organizations for persons with disabilities.  Since many of the participants were persons with disabilities, necessary arrangements were made to ensure that everyone could participate freely, including ensuring the venue was barrier-free, preparing sign language interpreters and captioning presentations made on screen.  The two-day program of the symposium included case study reports on employing persons with disabilities, panel discussions, and presentations by experts invited from overseas.

Twenty Years of AAR Japan’s Vocational Training Centre (VTC)
The presentations covered a wide range of issues, including an explanation of the legal framework for employment of persons with disabilities, successful cases of collaboration between employers and supporting organisations for persons with disabilities, as well as raising awareness of the challenges faced by persons with disabilities in the workplace.
Representing AAR Japan, local staff member Ma Swe Swe Hlaing, in charge of programmes supporting the employment of persons with disabilities, presented the contents of the curriculum offered by the VTC for persons with disabilities, which first opened in 2000 in Yangon. AAR Japan also made presentations on its role in supporting interactions between potential employers and possible employees with disabilities prior to employment, and its role in supporting employers and employees after employment had commenced.
The VTC, as a boarding school/institution, accepts trainees from all over Myanmar and provides them with a three-and-a-half months training. The VTC started with only two courses; namely, sewing and in beauty. A third course was added in 2010 in computers.  Since the inception of the VTC, almost 20 years ago, more than 1,750 trainees have completed the training.  Some graduates returned their hometown to open beauty shops or tailors and others accepted jobs in firms.
92% of the VTC graduates in 2018 obtained meaningful employment.
Ma Swe Swe Hlaing, AAR Japan’s local staff member in charge of support for the employment of persons with disabilities (second from left) presented on the success of AAR Japan’s VTC, which has been in operation for nearly 20 years.
(March 3rd, 2019)

Other NGOs and firms also made presentations on a range of similar cases, such as (i)  training in massage therapy for persons with seeing disabilities ; (ii) training in baking and confectionery skills for women, including those with disabilities; (iii)  the introduction of micro-financing for persons with disabilities; and (iv) establishing a qualification recognition system.  It was impressive that the presenters from supporting organizations for persons with disabilities as well as those from firms not only raised the issue of inadequate opportunities for vocational training but also stressed the need for training aimed at fostering social inclusion and confidence before employment, and psychological or mental health support after employment.

Perspectives from Efforts Overseas
The symposium also hosted presentations on the ongoing efforts being made in this area in other countries.  From the United Kingdom, Mr. Jane Cordell, Cordell who lost his hearing in his mid- twenties when he was active as a musician, highlighted the importance of coaching and mental support for persons with disabilities in light of his own experience and the challenges that many persons with disabilities face.
Guest speakers from overseas, Mr. Peter Fremlin, External Consultant of ILO (right) and Mr. Murteza Khan, Representative of the Bangladesh Business Persons with Disabilities Network (centre).
(March 6th, 2019)
Mr. Murteza Khan, a representative of the Bangladesh Business Network for Persons with Disabilities, reported on the recent activities of the network which was established in 2016. The foundation of the network is the promotion of firms’ leadership in employing persons with disabilities. This approach, which the ILO wishes to set up in each country, has been established in 29 countries and areas to date. The network in Bangladesh is utilised for sharing information among firms, for organising training for personnel in the human resource sector, for making recommendations to the government, and for organising joint interviews by different firms of persons with disabilities.
The presentations by international guest speakers provided valuable opportunities for the participants to learn about other countries’ advanced experiences and to understand the importance of ensuring there is a related legal framework and the need for setting up a network among firms, related organisations and individuals.

A Convenient Work Environment for Everyone
During the panel discussion, the panelists from different positions in industry, government or civil society addressed a number of themes, including “promotion of employing persons with disabilities,” “support for retaining persons with disabilities in employment,” and “technical support and reasonable accommodations to help persons with disabilities in the work place.” The panelists respectively called for greater technical training, mental and psychological support, and in-house training for persons with disabilities, and reaffirmed their acknowledgement of the current challenging issues.
Panel discussion by firms. Staff member of Myanmar’s large bank, representative of supporting organisation for persons with disabilities, a software developer, and representative of supporting organisation for persons with seeing disabilities were at the podium. (March 7th, 2019)
Mr. Daw Ma Ma Naing, Director of Human Resource Management at the Shangli-La Hotel Yangon, a foreign-affiliated enterprise, presented a case study of how the use of table terminals have been integrated into of in-house training as a way of being inclusive of staff with hearing disabilities. The panelists also discussed how the role of job coaches, through whom employees with disabilities, their families and employers are supported in and outside of the firm, is important to achieving the aim of better accommodating employees with disabilities in workplace.
As the profession of job coach is itself not widely known in Myanmar, the discussion provided the symposium participants with a valuable opportunity to learn about a novel approach.
Mr. Daw Win Thu Mon, deputy manager of the Call Center Security Section of Myanmar Apex Bank, a large local enterprise, shared the activities they had undertaken to recruit persons with disabilities in cooperation with supporting organisations for persons with disabilities, and its experiences in making the work environment inclusive of everyone.
These initiatives are not limited to the improvement of physical accessibility within and around the workplace, such as designing  a barrier-free workplace or arranging commuting buses, but also include having an open conversation session every month with all staff members of the section as well as the manager so that the views of staff with disabilities are duly reflected in the improvement of the workplace environment.
One practical example that was given was the introduction of adjustable office chairs, which was in response to a suggestion from  an employee with disabilities and contributed to the improvement of the overall workplace environment.

Firms Promptly Start Recruiting 
Many participants raised questions at the Q&A session. (March 6th, 2019)
Throughout the symposium, participants made many positive remarks, such as: “It was good to meet organizations and firms engaged in support of persons with disabilities,” “I was able to learn about related  efforts and successful cases,” and “a network among the business sector and persons with disabilities should be set up in Myanmar too, following the example of Bangladesh. ”After the symposium, different participants contacted AAR Japan with inquiries that led to concrete developments in employing persons with disabilities were seen. For instance, LOTTE Hotel Yangon, a foreign-affiliated enterprise, held recruitment interviews for trainees and graduates of the VTC, and initiated discussions with representatives of a supporting organization for persons with seeing disabilities regarding possible PC training for persons with seeing disabilities.

Reflecting Accumulated Knowledge and Views in Policy Making
The organisers of the symposium are, confident that it attained the ambitious goals that had been set beforehand; namely, “to expand networks of different people and organizations engaged in employing persons with disabilities,” “to share on-going efforts and good examples of best practice among stakeholders,” and “to have discussions among concerned local and international individuals and organisations on related issues.” 
The symposium was picked up and reported on by multiple media outlets and platforms, and on-going efforts and issues were disseminated to a wide range of people. 
At the table for persons with hearing disabilities, sign language interpreters (centre) interpreted, and summaries of presentations and panel discussions were displayed on screen. (March 6th, 2019)
From now on, utilising the networks extended through the symposium, and accumulating cooperative relations with more firms, AAR Japan is determined to continue its endeavours to expand the range of employment of persons with disabilities. AAR Japan’s efforts were appreciated by the Myanmar government and AAR Japan was appointed as a member of a governmental subcommittee to consult on policies regarding the participation of persons with disabilities in the labour force.
We shall continue to make efforts so that the various views and opinions on employment of persons with disabilities are taken to the sub-committee and are reflected in future policy development.
Yoshio NAKAGAWA of AAR Japan (first now, far left) together with the guest speakers and panelists.  (March 6th, 2019)
The aforementioned activities are conducted as a part of the Project for Strengthening of Employment Support for Persons with Disabilities, under a partnership program of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).  The successful symposium was made possible thanks to the generous contributions by the “Aeon 1 % Club” and others.

            Yoshio NAKAGAWA, Yangon Office
After graduating from university, Nakagawa worked at a Japanese humanitarian organization for five years before  joining AAR Japan in 2011.  Nakagawa resided in Tajikistan from March, 2011 to September, 2013.  In  October, 2013, Nakagawa relocated to Hpa-An, Karen state, Myanmar and since 2015 has been based at AAR Japan’s  Yangon office.  Nakagawa’s hometown is Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan and enjoys jogging.