Economic Empowerment: Enhancing Autonomy of Persons with Disability

Rachel’s Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.  

According to World Bank data on disability, there are about one billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability, and disability prevalence is higher for developing countries [1]. In India, based on the 2011 census, there are 26.8 million or 2.21% of Persons with Disability (PwD), out of which only 9.8 million are in the workforce in India [2]. The number of unemployed PwDs is likely going to increase if proper interventions are not taken. Though there has not been many reliable and comparable data on labor market participation by PwDs, reports on similar pattern have been observed in many countries at different levels of development. Comparatively with non-PwDs, PwDs are more likely to be unemployed and less likely to be full time employed.

Poverty also correlates with disability as it may increase the risk of disability through malnutrition, inadequate access to education and health care, unsafe working conditions, a polluted environment, and lack of access to safe water and sanitation [3]. The disability may increase the risk of poverty through lack of employment and education opportunities, lower wages, and increased cost of living with a disability [4]. Therefore, the empowerment of PwDs is important to redefine their possibilities and options and to act on them which otherwise they never thought being capable of. Thus PwDs should be empowered through their effective engagement in economic, social and political life, where often economic empowerment has been widely recognized as a key factor for enhancing the autonomy of PwDs and their full participation in the society.

Economic empowerment is the capacity of poor women and men to participate in, contribute to and benefit from growth processes on terms which recognize the value of their contributions, respect their dignity and make it possible for them to negotiate a fairer distribution of the benefits of growth [5]. Economic empowerment means people thinking beyond immediate survival needs and thus able to recognize and exercise agency and choice. The economic empowerment of persons with disabilities can be achieved if they have access to jobs and livelihoods and basic entitlements, such as education, health services, and housing [6]. In turn, economic participation facilitates the social integration of persons with disabilities [7].

However, PwDs have poor acccess to education and training which often results in their economic exclusion [8, 9]. Even data from UNESCO has revealed that the majority of PwDs are unable to earn a livelihood for similar reasons which include lack of education or training [10]. Livelihood activity is important for PwDs as it is the sum of ways and means by which individuals make and sustain a living. And participation in economic activity is necessary for every human being, not only for sustenance, basic survival or supplementing the family income, but also to contribute to one’s self-esteem and enhancing self-fulfillment which is very important for PwDs [11]. Therefore PwDs should be encouraged, promoted and supported to become self-employed, to develop their entrepreneurship capacity or even to own and operate their business [12].

My host organization, Samerth Charitable Trust, has been actively working with PwDs through their Chhattisgarh Social Inclusion Program (CSIP). Under the CSIP, one of the major areas is the economic empowerment of PwDs through the creation of PwDs Self Help Groups in two districts in Chhattisgarh i.e. Raipur and Mahasamund. The SHG is a holistic programme of micro-enterprises covering all aspects of self-employment, organization of the rural poor into self Help groups and their capacity building, planning of activity clusters, infrastructure build-up, technology, credit, and marketing [13]. It emphasizes activity clusters which are based on the resources and the occupational skills of the people and availability of markets [14].

PwD SHG member showing the Jewellery they made in the SHG and also wearing it

It is a group commonly formed by women though men can also be a part of the group, which has a specific number of members, like 10 or 12. SHGs are considered one of the most significant tools to adopt a participatory approach for economic empowerment [15]. In the case of PwDs, the groups formed should ideally be disability-specific wherever possible. However, in case there are not enough people to form a disability-specific groups, a group may comprise of persons with diverse disabilities or of both disabled and non-disabled persons below the poverty line.

After the PwDs SHG is formed, different livelihood activities are identified and training is provided through Samerth. Sensitized trainers on disabilities are usually engaged in the livelihood training activities of PwDs SHGs. So far, Samerth has provided training to PwDs SHG livelihood activities like jewelry making, mushroom cultivating, sustainable sanitary napkin production, etc. These are some of the livelihood activities which the PwD SHGs are earning a livelihood and become economically empowered.

Under the PwD SHG, there are both male members as well as female members. Making jewelry is mostly done by the women and market activities usually involve the male members. Most of the members have no formal education or vocational training before joining a PwD SHG. However, their creative skills are widely visible in the types of jewelry they make. Most of them had never even left their houses before joining the PwD SHG and were financially dependent on their family for everything, even for their basic necessities. After getting involved in the SHG livelihood activity, women with disabilities (WwD) became financially independent and have been actively participating in many workshops organized by Samerth, which was not possible earlier. Despite proper facilities being available for PwDs, psychological barriers making them doubt their worthiness have been a difficult task and challenge while working with PwDs. Engaging in the PwD SHG has not only helped in economic empowerment but also contributed to building self-confidence as well.

Whenever I meet any WwD from PwD SHG engaged in jewelry making during my field visits or any workshops organized by Samerth, they always greet me and eagerly show off the jewelry they are wearing made by themselves. They have gained confidence to wear their beautiful jewelry which was previously discouraged by their family members mainly for economic reasons. They could not have afforded spending some extra money on top of the burden of taking care of their families. In the society, WwD and in general PwDs are often stigmatized and their capability is not acknowledged.

Over the past decades, there has been an increase of global awareness about disability-inclusive development. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is such an important initiative in promoting the full integration of persons with disabilities in societies. Its article 27 about work and employment mentions that the state parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to work on an equal basis with others [16]. Even India has ratified the CRPD, which is legally binding. Along with the number of provisions the Government of India has implemented for PwDs, non-profit organizations like Samerth Charitable Trust have been actively involved in the ground level work with the PwDs to address their challenges and issues.


1. “Disability Inclusion.” The World Bank, 4 Apr. 2019. Accessible at:

2. Disabled Persons in India: A Statistical Profile 2016. Social Statistics Division, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. Government of India. New Delhi, Jan. 2017. Accessible at:

3. “Disability Inclusion.” The World Bank, 4 Apr. 2019. Accessible at:

4. Ibid.

5. “Women’s Economic Empowerment.” OECD, April 2011. Accessible at:

6. “Economic Empowerment through Inclusive Social Protection and Poverty Reduction Strategies.” Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Sixth Session, New York, 17-19 July 2013. Accessible at:

7. Ibid.

8. “Disability and Work.” International Labour Organization, 2019. Accessible at:–en/index.htm.

9. “Labour Market Statistics on Persons with Disabilities.” International Labour Organization, 2019. Accessible at:–en/index.htm.

10. “GEM Report Summary on Disabilities and Education.” Global Education Monitoring Report. UNESCO, 2014. Accessible at:

11. “Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities.” Sustainable Development Goals. United Nations Development Programme, 2019. Accessible at:

12. “Persons with Disabilities.” Social Protection and Human Rights, 2019. Accessible at:

13. Chapter – V, SELF HELP GROUP. Accessible at:

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). United Nations, 2008. Accessible at:

Born and brought up in Nagaland, in the Northeastern part of India, Rachel always wondered if people could make use of the abundant natural resources in such a way that it would help improve livelihoods in a sustainable manner. Having completed her graduation in Political Science, she is keenly interested in understanding the intricacies of different aspects of rural areas. This motivated her to pursue a Master’s in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. During these two years, she volunteered in Care and Support Society, Nagaland, gained experiential learning with People Action for Creative Education, Telangana, as part of the course curriculum, and undertook an internship with Rajasthan Grameen Aajeevika Vikas Parishad, Rajasthan. She had worked in broad areas like livelihood for persons with disabilities in Nagaland, rural development in Telangana, health and gender related issues of the rural communities in parts of Rajasthan. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Rachel aspires to gain in-depth knowledge and develop perspectives on development sector initiatives, challenges and probable solutions to these.

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