Of the 650 million people with disabilities (PWDs) around the world, 470 million are of working age. That’s more than the population of the United States. But while the International Labour Organization’s estimation of the number of employable disabled people proves they are not an invisible minority, they continue to be among the most discriminated-against professionals – experiencing an unemployment rate that is 80-100% higher than non-disabled workers.

PWDs are entitled to paid work, as is stipulated by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but it is still difficult for them to get a job. This is despite the fact that a large number of PWDs have the education and skills to excel in a wide variety of industries. This problem stems from common misconceptions about their capabilities and productiveness, and about the necessity and cost of making workplace modifications.

The Philippines – the host of this year’s World Economic Forum on East Asia – is no exception. This is what one article from 2013 said about the situation in the country: “Filipino employers prefer PWDs who are male, are non-college-degree holders, have motor disability, and with previous related work experience for ‘blue-collar’ jobs. The work arena for PWDs is largely male-dominated like in mainstream employment, where female PWDs suffer double discrimination because of their gender and because of their handicap. Apparently, businesses in the Philippines also favour PWDs applying for non-professional jobs, which may explain why employers choose non-college-degree holders over those who have finished higher studies.”

A paper from the Philippine Institute for Development Studies supported this observation, noting that most PWDs in urban areas work as masseurs, while most of those from rural areas work on farms.

As a PWD myself, I know from first-hand experience that even if we are skilled and talented, many employers don’t give us the chance to prove our worth. They offer us low-end positions just to accommodate us, and then announce that they are providing employment opportunities to the PWD sector. And we are supposed to be grateful for the opportunity.

However, technological developments and an increase in internet access are advancing social justice and equality everywhere. The internet is a great equalizer – not only for the poor, but also for PWDs. Tapping into this great and democratic source of information, people realize that we all have equal rights – even those on the margins of society. And those in the majority have a responsibility to reach out to those in dire need of attention and protection. The internet can give talented individuals – from the PWD sector and other underprivileged communities – the visibility they deserve.

This is where the online job market can help. Outsourcing and crowdsourcing platforms are a great way for PWDs to kick-start an online freelancing career and find the sort of professional opportunities not provided by local companies. Working from home suits PWDs because it is flexible and allows more free time to pursue online work. It also eliminates the two greatest barriers to finding employment: mobility and accessibility.

To make this a reality, I am strongly advocating the three following strategies, which can be supported by both the public and private sectors.

Firstly, the development of a training module on the different adaptive technologies for PWDs, as well as a working package for using them in telecommuting work.

Second, the creation of a prototype web application that enhances the usability of screen readers for the blind and speech-recognition software for the deaf.

Finally, the establishment of partnerships with online companies in order to match qualified PWDs with jobs as virtual assistants.

The logic underpinning this initiative is that it can be much simpler for a disabled person to carry out a flexible home-based job than to deal with whatever limitations they may experience at an office or other place of work.

People with disabilities can be valuable employees when given the right opportunity. Those who are computer-literate can be a strong contribution to an online workforce, and society should maximize their potential by exploring the opportunities waiting for them, both in the workplace and in home-based jobs.

Author: Rex Bernardo is a 2011 Young Global Leader and the founder of Project WIRED, an advocacy group for greater inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace. He is participating in the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Manila, the Philippines.

Image: man rides on a wheelchair as he is about to cross the 10 km finish line during the Olympic Day Run in Manila REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo