Aisha, a 32-year-old disabled woman from Azerbaijan, spends her days idly watching TikTok videos on her tablet, unlike her peers who go to work. She lives with her mother in a studio apartment in a disadvantaged area of the capital, Baku. Financial struggles and limited opportunities loom as Aisha's mother ages and becomes unable to work, leaving them in dire poverty.
Aisha is just one of the over 560,000 disabled individuals in Azerbaijan facing numerous challenges related to accessibility, inclusion, and disability. The lack of long-term support options and available opportunities hinders their personal and professional growth, significantly impacting the lives of women like Aisha.
A January 2023 survey focusing on the living conditions of people with disabilities in Azerbaijan, conducted by KEKA, a local sustainable development organization led by the author, found a striking 80 percent of respondents were unemployed at the time of the survey and were actively seeking employment as of January 2023. One in 10 individuals with disabilities had never even attempted to apply for a job.
The survey conducted among 100 respondents with various types and severity of disabilities also evaluated respondents’ academic and vocational education and its correlation with income. While 67 percent of respondents said they had completed high school, only 20 percent said they were able to graduate with a bachelor's degree.
An overwhelming 90 percent of respondents reported receiving social payments from the state budget, which totals an average of AZN 298 (USD 175) per person per month. Additional sources of income included allowances from family members and donations from sympathetic strangers, a common way of supporting people with disabilities in Azerbaijan.
Despite respondents having an average monthly income of around AZN 415 (USD 244), their monthly expenditures averaged AZN 463 (USD 272). While both women and men with disabilities earned similar amounts, men tended to spend 200 AZN (117 USD) more per month. The additional spending is likely due to more medical costs as well as country-wide sexism that expects men to spend more, regardless of their disability.
The challenging conditions stem from Azerbaijan's “Law on Employment,” which lacks implementation and monitoring mechanisms for employment. Despite having agreed to the quota-based system, obligating companies in Azerbaijan to hire disabled employees, there is no mechanism in place to document and monitor the data on compliance or implement consequences for non-compliant companies.
In addition to legal gaps, lack of accessible infrastructure and limited inclusive education create significant barriers for people with disabilities. As a result, people with disabilities are limited to high school education, and as such lack the practical knowledge and skills required for advanced employment.
Aisha's case exemplifies this issue. Her disability does not hinder her learning potential. However, she lacks the opportunity to gain the right skills that could secure her a job in a suitable environment.
People with disabilities like Aisha, who relies on a wheelchair, are entitled to live in an accessible society according to Azerbaijan's Law on the Rights of People with Disabilities. However, the reality is different. Inaccessible buildings prevent her from attending school, leaving her with limited knowledge gained from her home-schooling and questionable TikTok videos. Aisha couldn't attend a university because of restricted primary education, and even with access to better primary education, the chances of Aisha attending a university would still have been limited because of inaccessible university buildings. As a result, she has been confined to her wheelchair in the apartment where she lived all her life, spending her days aimlessly surfing the internet.
Presently, Aisha remains unemployed, and thousands of other individuals with disabilities share her struggle that is due to inadequate infrastructure and limited inclusive job opportunities.
But there’s a way to fix that, such as changing existing legislation. The government of Azerbaijan should establish a robust monitoring mechanism to ensure company compliance with specific disability employment requirements. Japan, for example, distributes the funds collected as fines from businesses that violate disability employment quotas as subsidies for those in full compliance with the regulation as an incentive for them to hire more staff with disabilities.
Azerbaijan already has a Cabinet of Ministers’ decree on infrastructure accessibility, which calls for addressing the needs of persons with disabilities during the design and construction of facilities and residential buildings. Using this decree as a founding block, the government could set up a monitoring system enforcing fines for non-compliance and compel companies to hire and report the number of people with disabilities they employ.
These companies should also be encouraged to create positions suitable for the average person with disabilities in Azerbaijan. For instance, Aisha could handle security cameras or take customer orders at a local fast-food restaurant. Moreover, these newly employed individuals, including Aisha, should receive on-the-job training for higher-level positions, enabling them to make more significant contributions to their places of employment.
Another solution can be to build effective training programs. The state institutions responsible for vocational education and disability inclusion must establish comprehensive training and re-training initiatives specifically targeting people with disabilities. These programs need not be lengthy four-year academic courses but rather intensive six to nine-month courses that provide people with disabilities with in-demand skills, enhancing their employability. Aisha doesn’t need to tackle complex mathematical problems or interpret philosophical writings. Instead, the focus should be on equipping her with practical skills such as video editing, programming, or digital design. These skills could open up opportunities for her for freelance assignments worldwide.
A 2008 Leonard Cheshire program entitled “Access to Livelihoods” focusing on providing vocational education and training (VET) to people with disabilities in South Asia proved to be effective, ultimately reaching a 66 percent success rate in providing employment or self-employment for participating people with disabilities after their vocational training programs. A decade later, 88 percent of all participants in the program reported that they had increased their earnings as a result.
Challenges and moving forward
One of the challenges is the cost of training and hiring people with disabilities. Currently, a considerable amount of the state budget is allocated for people with disabilities in Azerbaijan. Our survey revealed that an average of AZN 298 (USD 175) is paid out in various forms of social payments each month, with nearly 471 thousand recipients, receiving over AZN 2 billion total (approximately USD 1.2 billion). This amount constitutes a significant portion of the state budget, as evidenced by the allocated AZN 4.4 billion (about USD 2.6 billion) for social payments in 2023. By empowering people with disabilities to enter the job market and not solely rely on social payments, this financial burden can be reduced. Instead, they can become contributing members of society by paying taxes and requiring fewer state funds.
Another challenge is the cost of accessibility. Creating accessible environments and transportation options for people with disabilities will require funding. The state budget has allocated AZN 5.6 billion (around USD 3.3 billion) for “construction and urban planning” in 2023. Based on the Law on the Rights of People with Disabilities, this budget can be utilized to adapt buildings and transportation systems across Azerbaijan to cater to the specific needs of differently-abled individuals, such as wheelchair users and those with visual impairments.
Implementing these changes will result in Aisha and over 560,000 other individuals experiencing a significant improvement in their economic conditions. They will be lifted from the brink of poverty and have the opportunity to lead fulfilling lives in an accessible society while also making meaningful contributions to the economy. The government will benefit from reduced direct payments and can redirect these funds towards enhancing healthcare and education systems for people with disabilities. The transformation to an equitable job market for people with disabilities will usher in numerous possibilities and benefits for the entire society.