How the future of work might look like for PWDs

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Virtualahan, an online platform based in Davao, provides digital skills and employment support for people with medical, mental, and psychosocial disabilities. Photo courtesy of VIRTUALAHAN

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Ryan Gersava was born in Sultan Kudarat to parents who did not finish high school and whose only source of income was farming. The youngest child of 10, he says his family had two options: to drown in systematic oppression or to dream big.

They opted to dream, with all the siblings pooling resources and coming together to help Gersava go to a private medical school. However, at 16, he was diagnosed with an incurable disease.

“I was very young, [so] you don't think that your life is gonna end … So I went into a denial stage until I was confronted by it when I already finished school,” he shares.

After passing the medical technology board exams in 2015, he applied for jobs abroad, as he wanted to work and save first before he pursued becoming a doctor. He got a job offer in Dubai, but when he was about to sign the contract, the offer was revoked after the company learned of his condition.

“Because I couldn't get a job, I opted to work online,” he says. “I could work from home with a laptop and an internet connection, and earn a decent income without having to deal with discrimination or politics or whatever unhealthy situation [that exists] inside a workplace.”

2017-06-19_1417.png Within Virtualahan’s six-week program, PWDs undergo online training on digital marketing, administrative support, and content management, among others. Photo by GIMER ROMERO

He realized that this was not only applicable to him, but also to a lot of Filipinos who could not find jobs as well because of their ‘disabilities.’ That same year, with some time on his hands, he created Virtualahan, a combination of the words ‘virtual’ and ‘eskwelahan,’ to provide digital skills support for people with medical, mental, and psychosocial disabilities, so they can work on their careers as online professionals.

According to the Department of Health, in the Philippines, the latest Census of Population and Housing show that out of 92.1 million households, 1.443 million Filipinos have some form of disability; the highest number being in Region IV-A or the Calabarzon region. The same research shows that among the age groups, the majority of PWDs belong to the working age group (15-64 years old).

Within Virtualahan’s six-week program, PWDs undergo online training on digital marketing, administrative support, and content management, among others. Some of their students have gone to put up their own online businesses, others work on other online platforms like Upwork and onlinejobs.ph, and some of them have also been directly hired by Virtualahan. Outsourcing companies like Accenture have also collaborated with Virtualahan to provide digital training skills and employment for PWDs.

Gersava says that since starting, they've had a 74 percent employment rate. 

While the sessions on technical, digital skills are what can get their students employed, Gersava shares that their sessions on well-being and advocacy are what trainees seek the most. The well-being session runs like a support group session, where trainees open up about their day-to-day worries, issues, and insecurities.

“Statements like, ‘Until when should we live in the shadows?’ Parang ganon na [statements], super painful siya and I know because I've been there,” he says. “Like sa akin ‘yung struggle ko [is] I need to find a specific hospital na wala akong kakilala, na wala akong mga classmates to do my blood tests — until today.”

ryan solo (1).jpg “We are scared that a lot of people will lose their jobs. The most affected vulnerable population would be people with disabilities because people with disabilities, the type of tasks that they can do at the moment, can easily be replaced by algorithms,” says Ryan Gersava, the founder of Virtualahan. Photo by GIMER ROMERO

The advocacy sessions, on the other hand, are where they promote various campaigns and causes — from autism awareness activities to initiatives like ‘hugs against drugs.’ “We run a lot of advocacy campaigns on road safety kasi marami kaming [students na] victims of hit and run,” he shares. “So [this] turns PWDs into productive and active citizens at the same time.”

However, not all companies are keen to open their hiring pool to PWDs. In a study provided by the Philippine Institute of Development Studies, approximately half of working PWDs are underemployed or are only employed as temporary workers. Gersava shares that some companies just simply say no for the sole reason that they cannot hire a PWD, while other companies that are open to it do not have the structure to do so. “They're scared. It's not about the jobs that they can provide, but it's about supporting the person with disability. Like okay, we hired a PWD, what happens next?” he explains.

He also cites some instances where companies can be overprotective towards PWDs. “When a PWD is hired within a company, parang, ‘Hey, don’t do this, don’t do that,’ ‘Hey, baka madapa ka, baka maganito ka,’” he says. “Instead of feeling productive that he’s doing well in his job, the person feels guilty getting a paycheck at the end of the month because the person didn't do anything productive.”

To improve these workplace realities, Virtualahan has recently developed a two-day workshop for HR personnel and key decision makers in various institutions that could help them identify problems that hinder companies from hiring and empowering PWDs within the workplace. After the workshops, the companies then decide if they are able to employ PWDs, and Virtualahan extends the support necessary for the PWDs’ integration in the company.

Team Building 1 (1).jpg While the sessions on technical, digital skills are what can get their students employed, Gersava shares that their sessions on well-being and advocacy are what trainees seek the most. The well-being session runs like a support group session, where trainees open up about their day-to-day worries, issues, and insecurities. Photo by GIMER ROMERO

Virtualahan ultimately wants to be a leader in creating work environments that are diverse and inclusive in the Philippines. They are working to achieve this by also launching projects that would include indigenous people of Sultan Kudarat, as well as former drug dependents, so these disenfranchised communities can also be empowered workers of the digital age.

The rise of digital technologies seems to be inevitable, and the rapid transition into automation is a foreseeable challenge that Gersava recognizes. “We are scared that a lot of people will lose their jobs. The most affected vulnerable population would be people with disabilities because people with disabilities, the type of tasks that they can do at the moment, can easily be replaced by algorithms,” he says.

“[But PWDs] have the biggest protection when it comes to human and emotional intelligence, which is what we need for the next generation of jobs ... The dream is to invent and make sure that as we progress as a species, as we evolve as a society, that no one is left behind.”

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For more information, visit the Virtualahan website.