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Can Platforms Pave The Way To An Inclusive $5 Trillion Economy?

The country needs a concerted ecosystem-wide effort to create conditions where Persons with Disability have an equal opportunity for benefiting from the platform economy

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The advent of Platform Economy has revolutionized market dynamics throughout the world and the story is not much different in India. According to a PayPal 2018 report, 1 in every 4 online freelancers is based in India. Furthermore, some estimates indicate that they contribute to about 40% of online freelance jobs globally. Platform aggregators have opened up opportunities for millions of Indians. The exciting part is that this new business model has the potential to provide livelihood opportunities to a huge untapped talent pool in the country.

Persons with Disability (PwD) are the largest minority group in India and are a huge pool of untapped talent. Census 2011 states that 2.1% of India’s population lives with a disability, However, experts claim that this figure is grossly under-reported. As per a 2011 World Health Organization/World Bank report, about 15% of the world’s population lives with a disability.

The unemployment rate for Persons with Disability in India stands at 64%. This is substantially higher than the overall unemployment rate of 6.1% for India. Members of this community have to face enormous challenges right from an early age beginning with inequitable access to education, healthcare, sanitation, and an enabling environment. For example, schools and colleges often lack adequate infrastructure such as ramps or even study material in alternative formats such as audiobooks. When it comes to employment, the PwD have to overcome myriad cultural, infrastructural and behavioral barriers. For instance, the hiring managers often have a bias against the skills and capabilities of a Person with Disability. Inaccessibility of IT and physical infrastructure at the workplace also poses a challenge for a member of this community. As a result, it is extremely difficult for a Person with

Disability to get a job even if she has the necessary credentials. This is an alarming waste of economic potential.

According to a 2009 International Labor Organization working paper, the cost of excluding Persons with Disability from the workforce could be as high as 7%. As a comparison, in 2016-17, the contribution of electricity, gas, water supply & other utility services to India’s GDP was 2.46% - less than half of what the country could gain from improving employment outcomes for Persons with Disability.  Several studies have concluded that PwDs are as productive as their non-disabled peers, take lesser time off, have better employee retention rates and have superior safety record at the workplace. For instance, at The Lemon Tree Hotels, the Deaf housekeeping staff is 15% more efficient in cleaning rooms than their non-disabled peers[4]. In addition to the above benefits, having someone with a disability improves diversity within a team, leading to better outcomes. What’s more is that a University of Massachusetts research has shown that customers greatly favor businesses which engage Persons with Disability in their workforce. Therefore, engaging members of this community in the workforce makes a lot of business sense.

Many Persons with Disability are already working with platform businesses to earn a living. For instance, Ramu Sahu[6] from Beawar, Rajasthan who lives with a locomotor disability works as a Delivery Partner with Zomato. He recently received tremendous appreciation from millions of netizens for his work ethic when a video showing Ramu delivering food on his manual wheelchair went viral.

Ashwin Kumar, who lives with a visual disability and has been working with Upwork (world’s largest freelancing platform) for over 10 years, is another such example. He has completed 250+ projects for 150+ clients globally by spending more than 20 thousand hours with an impressive 100% success score. This has earned him Upwork’s Top Freelancer badge.

The Indian Constitution guarantees that all citizens shall have the fundamental right to practice any profession or carry out any occupation. In theory, Persons with Disability also enjoy this right. However, in reality, they have historically struggled to exercise it for reasons mentioned earlier. The good thing is that the new-age platform businesses offer several advantages unavailable till now. The freedom to work from anywhere enables a PwD to work from a location convenient for them. The flexibility of the model empowers a platform worker to set their own time which is a valuable perk for someone who is unable to work traditional hours. The streamlined enrolling, onboarding and support processes of platform businesses means that a PwD does not have to negotiate with a hiring manager who might be well-intentioned yet prejudiced against the disabled community. Having said this, a few critical reforms are needed to tap the full potential of platform economy to usher in inclusive growth.

Platform companies sometimes struggle to engage Persons with Disability for regulatory reasons. For instance, the Deaf and hard of hearing are often refused a driving license in some parts of the country. This is true even though All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) states that "Driving is primarily a visual function with little inputs from hearing”. The Institute further acknowledges that the loss of hearing does not per-se impact the ability to drive. Regulators and policymakers could take a fresh look at current laws to facilitate engagement of Persons with Disability in the workforce. In fact, in addition to updating the regulations, governments could offer incentives such as tax breaks to platform businesses on meeting certain targets for engaging Persons with Disability. Challenges also surface when the systems and processes of a platform company are not user-friendly (accessible) for Persons with Disability. Yet another difficulty arises because many disability skilling/upskilling organizations, disability job boards and Persons with disability themselves are not aware of these opportunities. Thus, there is a need for building capacity at multiple levels. As we work towards transforming India into a $5 trillion economy, the country needs a concerted ecosystem-wide effort to create conditions where Persons with Disability have an equal opportunity for benefiting from the platform economy. This will create a win-win-win outcome for the community of Persons with Disability, the businesses, and the Economy.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Apoorv Kulkarni

The author leads the Accessibility track at OMI. He is a Chartered Accountant, has an MBA from Stanford University and lives with a disability.

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