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Promoting Entrepreneurs with Disability- towards an inclusive business fabric PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 27 September 2019 12:15

Partially sighted Anusha Disanayaka from Kandy aspires to expand his home-based industry of stitching handloom pillow cases and marketing jute-based products made by persons with disabilities. Mangalika Ranjani who is hearing impaired from Katunayake is keen to set up her own garment factory while hearing impaired Chandima Priyadarshani from Malabe is keen to expand her imported food business.

Disability has not impeded these entrepreneurs from pursuing their dream business pathways - all thanks to the ‘Promoting Entrepreneurs with Disability’ programme of the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC). The programme is initiated by the EFC’s Network on Disability, steered by the Manager of the Specialized Training & Disability Resource Centre of the Network, Manique Gunaratne who is an internationally acclaimed activist fighting for those with disabilities today.

Since its launch in December last year, the programme has enabled several entrepreneurs with diverse disabilities to set up start-ups in a professional manner. Another group of persons with diverse disabilities was also trained on ‘Techno-enterpreneurship for Social Change’ with the support of UNDP, Cisco Sri Lanka and City Bank. They were trained on entrepreneurship skills and financial literacy. These trainees who completed their training in August this year will be receiving international certification from Cisco (a worldwide leader in IT) shortly.

The programme, as Guneratne notes, has reached out to people with diverse disabilities including vision impaired, hearing impaired, physical disabilities, multiple disabilities, speech difficulties and those with psycho-social disabilities. "Very often those with psycho-social disabilities such as the depressed and others with certain mental disorders do not come into the mainstream of society, let alone the business fabric, largely due to stigma," she observes. Her mentoring over the years has unearthed this cross section of our society shunned by many. Almost all benefactors of the programme are those who have received training imparted by her in ICT and other life skills at the Disability Resource Centre of the EFC’s Disability Network.

The entrepreneurship programme, as Gunaratne says, was inspired by the LEED Project (Local Empowerment through Economic Development) supported by the ILO to empower persons with disabilities in the North. "The LEED Project kindled our idea to design a programme with a wider reach, enabling those with disabilities across the island to come on board." The first phase of the entrepreneurship programme covered nearly 45 topics including a preparation of a business plan, sales strategy, nature of competition, SMART goals in business, advertising and more.

The learning will not only benefit participants but also their communities, maintains Gunaratne adding that they are to be catalysts of change in a community. "Their knowledge will be shared among their community members who too will be empowered partners in the exercise," she says.

Under the programme, entrepreneurs should submit a business plan for them to be eligible to a loan to set up or expand their already established businesses. An easy payment loan scheme from the EFC itself is to be set up for the purpose.

This specially designed loan scheme as Gunaratne says will clear a major bottleneck for small scale business owners with disabilities. "Many lending institutions are reluctant to service them owing to their disability. This is a myth which needs to be debunked as the LEEDS Project proved that the pay-back guarantee was extremely successful."

The EFC with its over 700 member companies and affiliations is the principal organization of employers. In order to expand the loan fund of its Disability Network, collaborations with these members are imperative says its Manager. "There is a good market for the products of those with disabilities, but to create more opportunities for them, we need to expand our fund for which we need to engage with corporates," she says noting that these small scale business owners also need to be empowered in areas such as value addition and quality control to win a better market.

What the Disability Network envisions for its beneficiaries is a world which will offer them opportunities as against sympathy. Manique Gunaratne is a living embodiment of this. "What the EFC gave me 20 years ago was one opportunity which opened multiple doors for me," she says reflecting on her professional advancement of becoming a global ambassador for the rights of people with disabilities. In a country with a majority of women, their contribution to the workforce still needs to be improved. In this setting, the contribution of women with disabilities cannot be understated says Gunaratne "It is crucial for a woman to be economically empowered as she can play a more proactive role in the decision-making of the family. Most importantly, she will have access to information which is crucial for the wellbeing of a family as well as the community," says the activist who also cites the accompanying improved social status and enhanced self esteem as other benefits in this aspect.

The EFC’s collaboration with the Policy Development Unit of the Prime Minister’s Office has also enabled a market for the products of those with disabilities. Gumaratne who is in the sub-committee to promote vocational and technical training and employment for people with disability which comes under the purview of the Policy Development Unit of the Prime Minister’s Office says that this collaboration has enabled a market for their products- both edibles and other non-perishable items through online platforms and some leading super markets.

"The biggest challenge for persons with disabilities is to market their products. This understanding has opened doors for them," she says urging leading retail stores in the country to come forward to offer space for the products of these people.

As the Director General of the EFC, KanishkaWeerasinghe notes, the endeavour is means of championing an inclusive world of work where ‘no one should be left behind’. "As the principal organization of the employers in the country, we are at all times mindful of changing paradigms in the world of work where entrepreneurship plays a big role today. Promoting Entrepreneurship as part of the Employers Network on Disability is another move in that direction where diversity in the labour force in recognized. In doing so, everyone becomes a partner in the economic growth of the country, well in line with our country’s sustainable development goals." 



by Randima Attygalle

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Last Updated on Friday, 27 September 2019 12:18

The EMPFED -Third Issue - June 2020