In the past 18 months since Covid-19 was first discovered, the world has seen a new norm in the way weddings, birthdays, festivals and other special occasions are celebrated. Companies too have had to do away with lavish corporate functions such as dinner and dance parties, moving them online instead.
Naturally, environmentalists are rejoicing at how the pandemic has reduced activities that perpetuate a culture of waste. For instance, an Indian wedding hosting 100 to 400 guests produces at least 3 tons of waste in the form of food, plastic and decorations. The same goes for corporate functions where organizers tend to plan for more than less. Hence, the reduction of these functions has stopped or at least slowed down the production of items that typically end up in the trash (think magnets bearing the faces of the wedding couple).
Impact on Disability Employment Yet, a little known phenomenon is happening in the world of disability employment. Sheltered workshops and social enterprises that are in the business of producing event favors are badly hit by the falling demand for their goods. Sheltered workshops in particular may find it more challenging to pivot to produce alternative products. This can be explained by their clients with more severe disabilities having limited skill sets or requiring a longer runway to pick up new skills. To illustrate this, sheltered workshop clients who mainly engaged in packing and collating products prior to the pandemic, could at best only engage in the packing of self-care kits that were low in margin. On the other hand, Singapore Fashion Runway, a Singapore based social enterprise that hires persons with disabilities and terminal illnesses, managed to pivot to producing facial masks as their clients were able to sew.
What’s the Use? The question is - if and when the world reverts to pre-pandemic times, should sheltered workshops go back to producing event favors? Specifically, should they continue to offer products that are hardly useful and knowingly thrown into the trash bin in the name of creating employment for persons with disabilities? My personal opinion is to say no.
Instead, sheltered workshops should ask themselves if they can offer products that are utilitarian and practical. Guests would very much prefer receiving something that they can use over a decorative item that has no meaning to them. I was reminded of this when I visited the offices of ministers and senior civil servants who often receive paintings done by persons with disabilities as tokens of appreciation. The paintings were stacked up in piles collecting dust. It was painful seeing the paintings treated that way because I knew that the artists and staff had put in a lot of effort and pride to produce the artworks. I don’t blame the people receiving them though. There really was only so much wall space in their offices and homes combined. What else could they do?
New Solutions to Old Problems I do hope that the pandemic will change the way sheltered workshops and social enterprises create their product offerings. Some customers, such as government agencies, buy from them because they have a mandate to do so. This protected pipeline of demand has inadvertently resulted in the lack of progress in offering new products, and likewise, a lack of progress in teaching clients in the sheltered workshops to learn new skills.
Fortunately, customers have the collective power to change this.
For a start, VIPs and guest-of-honors can refuse to receive tokens of appreciation. Instead, they can tell the organizers that they would rather have the budget donated to a social cause. Charities that run sheltered workshops or skills training programmes can create a fund where they get their clients to produce functional products that are needed by the community. These products can then be given to needful members of the community who cannot afford them. The VIP or guest-of-honour can ask that the budget for the token of appreciation be channeled to that fund instead. That way, clients (persons with disabilities) can still get paid for the work they do.
Another much needed call-for-action, is for disability-employment advocates to join forces with environmentalists. The aim is to ideate on how the former can be part of the circular economy. The ‘E’ and ‘S’ of ESG (environmental, social, governance) are often in tension with each other (think of slash-and-burn farmers). But do they have to be? Can we not create a revolution where our people and environment live in harmony?
Be Part of the Change Nobody knows for sure when the pandemic will end. One thing we know for sure however, is that we cannot continue old practices that are not beneficial for people and the environment. At Workability International, we are excited to start a conversation on how we can engineer this change. Join us www.workability-international.org if this is something that you or your organization believes in.
 “Make your wedding a low waste affair”, Times of India, January 11 2020, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/spotlight/make-your-wedding-a-low-waste-affair/articleshow/73187619.cms
 “Social Enterprises vs Covid-19; the new normal of social businesses”, Ignite Media, 10 Sep 2020, https://ignitemedia.blog/2020/09/10/social-enterprises-vs-covid-19-the-new-normal-of-social-businesses/