A New Award for Asia

ESCAP-Sasakawa-1
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The Escap-Sasakawa Award will recognise efforts of companies to create jobs for millions of people with disabilities.

By Imtiaz Muqbil

The Bangkok-based United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) has launched a new award designed to recognize the efforts of companies to create meaningful and productive jobs for millions of people with disabilities (PwDs). Regional hotels, convention centers, airports and other businesses in the Asia-Pacific travel and tourism sectors are being invited to send nominations for the second ESCAP-Sasakawa Award, which will be conferred toward the end of 2014.

ESCAP-Sasakawa-2Co-sponsored by the Nippon Foundation (TNF) and the Asia-Pacific Development Center on Disability (APCD), the first awards were conferred December 3, 2013, the U.N.-recognized International Day of Persons with Disabilities, at the InterContinental Hotel in Bangkok. The first three winners were the Holiday Inn Singapore Orchard City Centre, the Indian information technology company Wipro, and the Indian enterprise Trash to Cash. All the winners called on other companies in their respective sectors to join them in hiring more PwDs and grooming these hires as role models.

Madhumita Puri, CEO of Trash to Cash, said: “Focus on what they [the PwDs] can do, not on what they cannot.”

Nanda Krairiksh, director of ESCAP’s Social Development Division, said PwDs account for 15 percent of the world’s population, with more than 650 million in the Asia-Pacific region alone. She said disability-inclusive business is a pioneering concept that views PwDs as an untapped workforce and a market with significant purchasing power.

Launched to mark the first year of the UN’s Asia-Pacific Decade of Persons with Disabilities, 2013 to 2022, the awards will now be presented annually to businesses and enterprises in the region’s 58 U.N. member countries and territories, she said.

Nanda Krairiksh noted that the awards were in line with the “Incheon Strategy to Make the Right Real for Persons with Disabilities in Asia and the Pacific,” approved at a high-level meeting in Korea in November 2012. This strategy provides the world’s governments with the first set of goals and a specific timeframe to promote the rights and enhance the quality of life of the growing number of PwDs.

About 70 applications were received for the 2013 awards. More applications are projected for 2014 following translation of the application forms into more Asian languages.

ESCAP-Sasakawa-3The speeches at the opening ceremony were tinged with deeply personal reflections about the challenges faced by PwDs.

Dr. Noeleen Heyzer, ESCAP Executive Secretary and Undersecretary General of the U.N., was recovering from a foot operation at the time of the awards and walking with the help of a cane. As she still maintains a full travel schedule, she said she now has to make a special effort in advance to check out facilities for PwDs at airports and hotels.

Dr. Heyzer said, “Private sector leaders in this region, and beyond, have shown it is possible to employ persons with disabilities in a manner that spurs innovation, improves morale, increases productivity, lowers turnover, and improves the bottom line. In particular, multinational enterprises, whose scale of business operations have far-reaching impacts upon both markets and the lives of the persons they employ, can serve as powerful drivers of disability-inclusive business.”

Former Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun said his wife has been a wheelchair user for the past few years. “Her disability has made me understand more deeply the day-to-day challenges that persons with disabilities face in their daily life. My wife is constrained from the simple enjoyments of life. It is difficult for her to travel, shop or go to a restaurant due to physical barriers.

ESCAP-Sasakawa-4“Her situation has also made me recognize the vast opportunities that exist for the private sector to service this undervalued market. In this regard, societal changes present a real opportunity for innovative businesses to reap the rewards of expanding their markets to the fast growing disability community.”

Panyarachun noted that his father was instrumental in the founding of the first school for the blind in Thailand, in 1939, and would take him (and his brothers and sisters) to visit it regularly. “It was these visits that ingrained in me the values of compassion, inclusion and diversity,” he explains.

As prime minister between 1991 and 1992, he said, “I was proud to have overseen the passing of the first national law on disability in Thailand, the Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons Act of 1991. This act promoted greater livelihood opportunities for persons with disabilities and also the improvement of public accessibility through new regulations for buildings and services.

“And together with Senator Monthian [Thailand’s only visually-impaired senator], who is with us here today, I am also proud that we were able to enshrine the rights of persons with disabilities for the first time in Thailand in the 1997 Constitution in my capacity as the chair of the constitution drafting committee.”

Chairman of the judging committee, Mechai Viravaidhya, a Magsaysay award winner for his family planning and anti-AIDS campaigns, said that at his Bamboo school, children sit in a wheelchair for a half-hour every day to understand how it feels to be physically challenged. “When the young children go into working life, they will be more understanding of the needs of those less fortunate than them.”

He called for PwD education to be imparted in every school in Thailand; for Thai banks to provide special loans to PwD entrepreneurs; for the creation of more awards to recognize PwD-owned and operated businesses; and for more companies to hire more PwDs and help them start their own businesses. “Persons with disabilities should be employers, not just employees,” he said.

The travel and tourism industry is set to be a primary future focus of the awards. The ceremony had an entire table occupied by general managers from a number of top Bangkok hotels. By incentivizing job creation for PwDs, the industry will be making a positive contribution to the cause of creating more equitable societies.

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