Bhutan’s Future Challenge: Meaningful Work for People with Disabilities

Cover image for the exhibit known as "Symbolic Art from the Land of the Dragon."

Deep in the Himalayas, abundant water has created a wellspring of economic growth in the small South Asian nation of Bhutan. Hydropower plant development and strong fiscal policy have tamed inflation, reduced poverty and stabilized exchange rates, according to a 2019 World Bank report, but challenges remain. 

Hydropower itself doesn’t create a lot of jobs, so efforts increasingly are focusing on economic offshoots, like tourism and agribusiness, to spur eventual jobs for the nation’s high numbers of unemployed youth.

Into this mix of opportunity and challenge, add the quest by Bhutanese policymakers to show “vulnerable” groups—including those with disabilities—that they, too, have a place at the jobs table. Convince employers as well.

Such is the charge taken up by the Institute on Community Integration’s Global Disability Rights and Inclusion team in collaboration with the University of Birmingham in the UK and the Royal Thimphu College in Bhutan, which this month is hosting in the Twin Cities 18 Bhutanese educators, non-governmental organization leaders, parents of a persons with a disability, and an entrepreneur with a disability. 

They are visiting schools with work-transition programs, disability advocacy and self-advocacy organizations and employment support providers. Among them: Kaposia, the PACER Center, and Advocating Change Together. Group members are also spending a considerable amount of time meeting with staff from Minnesota’s DEED program and Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services to learn about state policies and initiatives that support the employment of people with disabilities. They’re observing trends in supported and customized employment—practices of providing people with disabilities with opportunities for community-based employment that match their interests and pay minimum wage and above. The model is a departure from sheltered workshops, which are centers authorized to employ groups of workers with disabilities at subminimum wages. 

ICI’s Brian Abery and Renáta Tichá, along with Chris Johnstone, assistant professor at University of Minnesota’s Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development department, are leading the visit. It marks the next phase of a three-year project under a subaward from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, which is led by Matthew Schuelka, a former Graduate Research Assistant at ICI. The research and development work, Understanding, Developing, and Supporting Meaningful Work for Youth with Disabilities in Bhutan: Networks, Communities, and Transitions, also includes the Royal Thimphu College in Bhutan. 

Earlier work under the award has revealed daunting hurdles, including results of a field survey that showed that approximately 57 percent of Bhutanese people with disabilities interviewed never attended school. 

“Those that do go have few opportunities once they’ve finished. The thinking is that, ‘If you can’t get a job after school, what is the utility of school?’” said Abery, who, along with Tichá, Schuelka and Johnstone visited Bhutan last fall to lay the groundwork for the group’s visit to ICI. The employment rate of people with disabilities there is just 23 percent, with many working 8 hours or less per week. Little wonder, then, that even young people with disabilities themselves lack the confidence that they can successfully be employed. 

“When we asked people who are unemployed why they weren’t working, the overwhelming response was ‘because I have a disability.’ That notion about people with disabilities not having the capacity to work was pretty much internalized,” said Abery. 

“Those surveyed also said they don’t feel there’s much support in the community for them to be employed or included in general,” in their communities, said Tichá.

Through the project, ICI is providing teacher and job coordinator training in transitioning students with disabilities from school to work, as well as promoting to employers the notion of hiring workers with disabilities. In addition, microgrants will help 10 local entrepreneurs with disabilities develop businesses.

“We’re learning a lot here,” said Kezang Sherab, one of the Bhutanese visitors. “There are a lot of family-owned businesses in Bhutan who need people, but they aren’t aware there are people with disabilities out there who could help. Bridging that gap in communication between stakeholders isn’t something that will cost a lot of resources.”

Sonam Tshewang, who is serving as a project coordinator under the award, acknowledged the road to inclusion may be rocky in a developing country like his own. “We have a lot of constraints and challenges, but this trip gives us the opportunity to see how things are developed here. Our group will go back home and become advocates for change.”

Please note: The visit includes an exhibit of artwork titled “Symbolic Art from the Land of the Dragon” from Bhutan’s Draktsho Vocational Training Centre for Special Children and Youth, January 10 through March 5, in Pattee Hall, 150 Pillsbury Dr. SE, Minneapolis. The exhibit is part of ICI’s Art for All: The Stephanie Evelo Fund for Art Inclusion program.