Helen Keller, an American author, disability rights advocate, political activist and lecturer, lost her sight and hearing after a bout of illness at the age of nineteen months. One of her famous and inspiring quotes says: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”   

Today, we have gathered here to witness the faith, optimism, hope and confidence of people gifted with incredible talents. The Disabled People’s Organisation of Bhutan has been a powerful force behind the initiative we are about to launch today, in partnership with KOICA. I am hopeful that these initiatives will help economically empower the persons with disabilities, or I would say rather, people with incredible abilities. 

I am happy to learn that our humble support, together with KOICA office in Bhutan, will enable them to immediately apply various vocational and entrepreneurial skills acquired through the “Critical Skills Development Program Empowering People with Disabilities” programme, initiated by the Disabled People’s Organization in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources.

Bhutan’s development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) places great importance to realizing the equal rights of all, including persons with disabilities. As per the 2017 Population and Housing Census, 2.1 percent of Bhutan’s population, or 15,567 Bhutanese, live with some form of disabilities. The true test of the GNH Society is that this segment of the society is not left behind – and that they are given equal access to tap into their full potential in every aspect of life. The first-ever National Policy for Persons with Disabilities approved by the government in 2019 (which UNDP had the opportunity to support) is one of many key milestones towards achieving the truly GNH society. However, we are cognizant that a lot remains to be done to accelerate its implementation, particularly in addressing the existing stigma, discrimination and systemic and structural barriers faced by the people with disabilities.   

One of the significant and persistent challenges is the pervasive negative perceptions and attitude towards disability, as revealed in the “Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices (KAP) Study on Children with Disabilities”. The Bhutan Vulnerability Baseline Assessment 2016 identifies PwDs as one of the vulnerable groups and highlights “stigma, discrimination and exclusion” as key challenges facing them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the economic vulnerabilities of PwDs. According to the “Rapid Socio- Economic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 on Tourism Sector in Bhutan”, conducted in April 2020 by the National Statistics Bureau and UNDP, many households have a vulnerable member, and 3 percent of the household surveyed have someone with physical and mental disability. The findings indicate the compounded risk for households with vulnerable members and calls for prioritization and targeted support to protect them and cater to their unique needs. This indicates that in a closely-nit society of Bhutan, disability is not a far distant matter. This calls for a whole of society approach as appropriate for a society that values compassion and inclusion.

In Bhutan, there are more women than men who have some form of disability. Coupled with the persistent challenges of gender inequality and discrimination, the empowerment of the people with disabilities, particularly amongst women and girls, is critical. We must do all we can to build a more fair and inclusive society and address all existing gaps. We have come to realize that important policies for employment such as the Labour and Employment Act of Bhutan 2007 and the National Human Development Resources Policy of Bhutan 2010 does not recognize or include the particular needs of people with disabilities in the labor market. And although Bhutan has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the country is yet to ratify it. We must do more in terms of coming up with targeted programmes to enhance employability of the PwDs and ensuring sustainability of initiated led by them. Such programmes could include facilitated access to financing with favorable interest rates and tailored vocational training. A life-cycle based social protection system for people with disability will also allow them to be more risk-taking and take up start-up and entrepreneurship opportunities.

This all seems impractical at the time of the COVID 19 crisis where difficult choices must be made in resource allocation. However, by consciously mainstreaming the needs of the people with disabilities in all policies and programmes and embracing the whole of the government and society approach, I can remain hopeful and confident. The National Policy for Persons with Disabilities 2019 must remain as our beacon of hope and be our North Star. In fact, the project “Economic empowerment of Persons with Disability” responds to the policy priority, which clearly calls for the enhancement of the economic security of the persons with disabilities by providing vocational and entrepreneurial skills and ensuring accessible workplace. This initiative is a humble, but tangible step towards ensuring live dignified and independent lives through the elimination of stigma, discrimination and exclusion facing the people with disabilities.

In conclusion, once again, I would like to thank all partners who have come together to make these initiatives possible – Big thank you must go to the persons with disabilities, KOICA and GNHC and all others who were involved. I would like to wish successful future of the business to be launched today as you all begin this new chapter in your life. You will be inspiration for all of us and help all us be hopeful and confident.

Thank you and Tashi Delek!

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