Innovation is not just about using new technology, it’s also about exploring new ways of thinking and working – together. In order to help us think outside the box, we also need to be working with partners and colleagues with different backgrounds and experiences.
Many persons with disabilities have greatly benefitted from advances in technology. To me, innovation is never an end in itself, but a means to address the problems faced by marginalized groups and promote their inclusion into society. As such, we have worked with several Vietnamese start-ups developing products or services for persons with disabilities, such as SC Deaf which provides sign language interpretation via smartphones or Vulcan Augmentics which uses 3D-printing to make prosthetic limbs. It was all about using innovative ideas to promote inclusion.
The concept of inclusive innovation goes further. It’s the idea that innovation should not be the monopoly of “tech geeks”, but that it should involve everyone, including marginalized groups. Members of these groups often face challenges in their daily lives and have become expert problem solvers. We need to support them in participating in the new digital economy. One good example is the D-Map which is a smartphone application developed by a Disabled Persons Organisation based in Ho Chi Minh City and which seeks to map accessible public places around Viet Nam.
To some extent, I believe that automation and AI could create more opportunities for persons with disabilities. The jobs which might be displaced by IR 4.0 are often jobs that persons with disabilities are not best suited for as many of these involve physical and repetitive movements. We can help persons with disabilities prepare for the jobs of tomorrow for which they may be at less of a disadvantage.
One of the reasons I so much enjoy working for the United Nations is that I have the opportunity to work with colleagues from different nationalities and professional backgrounds. More recently, I found myself thinking that I wanted to go further in terms of promoting diversity in my team and recruit persons with disabilities. I knew that this would be challenging. In my 15 years of working for the UN in different countries, I had never worked with a colleague with disabilities.
I wanted to recruit a person with disabilities who would both work on disability and also test us in the way we work. We didn’t quite know where to start until we came across the UNDP-UNV Talent Programme which supports UNDP offices in recruiting UN Volunteers with disabilities.
Through this programme, we recruited Huong, a young and talented Vietnamese woman who is visually impaired. She may be the very first person with visual impairment to work at UNDP globally. I wasn’t quite sure what working with and managing a colleague with visual impairment would involve. It has proved surprisingly easy. Aside of getting a couple of screen reader programmes, we didn’t have to make many other adjustments. We have been very lucky to work in a building which is a model in terms of accessibility – see blog post on GOUNH. Many signs are in Braille.
Colleagues in our team have been very supportive and proud to have Huong with us. Everybody is ready to help, when Huong needs help. I can already see that having Huong in the team is helping change the mindsets of colleagues within our team, within the office and beyond (among our partners for instance). I have no doubt that hiring Huong will prove to be a successful experiment. It is one more step on our journey toward inclusive innovation.