Owing to the pandemic, it was not until seven months into my assignment, as an Associate Experimentation and United Nations Volunteer (UNV) at UNDP, that I met my supervisor, Ehsan Gul, in-person. One of the first questions I found myself asking him was ‘why me… am I really a good fit for this position?’
His response would end up playing a decisive role in shaping my future at the Accelerator Lab, but also surprisingly send me into a flurry of retrospective thinking—as a person with disability starting out in the complex world of development.
From lemons to lemonade
I kept on thinking about the question I had asked my supervisor for days following our conversation. Growing up, I had faced my fair share of challenges–enough to learn that when life gives you lemon, you make lemonade and invite life over for a glass!
Non-inclusive behaviours of the society, and absence of basic infrastructure made me both cognizant of the societal challenges I was up against, and also what true inclusion should look like. This turned me into an active contributor and advocate for access, opportunity, and inclusion.
When I was studying at the University of Karachi, my friends and I would organize activities to build capacity of young people, especially young people with disabilities. This would play a decisive role in informing my choice to pursue a career as a development practitioner with the United Nations – where local and national development issues are dealt with a more nuanced, yet global lens. It is safe to say that when I got my offer to be a UNV at UNDP Innovation-Accelerator Lab, I was thrilled to see my dream materialize into reality. However, it was not without its challenges.
A brief stay turns into a journey
Navigating the labyrinth of a system that is the UN, while also learning about the nexus between development and innovation, in a virtual work modality—all added to my trails and trepidations. There were instances when I faced accessibility barriers whilst performing my duties virtually. Also, as innovation was a new space for me, and due to the virtual setting, my learning curve was not as fast as I had hoped. I felt dejected and even reached a point where I started speculating that my journey might be ending at the UN.
However, my team’s faith in me rekindled that lost hope.
An inclusive team spirit goes a long way
I was encouraged to assume added responsibility of Lab’s advocacy work, by arranging webinars, and podcasts aligned with our portfolios. Realizing my interest in resource mobilization and management, my supervisor encouraged me to manage the stakeholder coordination during the experimentation phase. The team’s awareness and utmost consideration to my accessibility needs, gave me moments of jubilancy and sense of inclusion in the team.
The primacy of collaborative work drove my sense of ownership. I found added impetus to enhance my digital skills and happened to collaborate on pro tools like Trello.
Did this change the landscape of the physical or social challenge persons with disabilities like myself are facing in Pakistan? Perhaps not. What it did, however, was teach an even bigger lesson. The answer was hidden in my supervisor’s answer to my question…
“Despite your limitations, you are a doer.”
Road to inclusion: lessons and insights
On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I would like to embody the lessons I’ve learned during my time in UNDP Pakistan.
· First and foremost is developing inclusive capacities of the managerial and hiring staff that works with persons with disabilities. This will help develop greater awareness and empathy towards persons with disabilities, while also pre-emptively overcoming mutual challenges likely to be faced at work.
· Secondly, UNDP should play an active role in promoting inclusivity for persons with disability at a country level. Launch and scale events specifically targeted at improving persons with disabilities employability. This includes advocating for their inclusion in decision making, starting with introducing legislative quotas in Pakistan.
Growing in a society that severely lacks confidence in its persons with disabilities, as employees or contributing members of the society, my supervisor’s answers instilled a spirit of perseverance necessary for anyone to flourish in fast-paced work environments.
Ehsan’s ability to pair his words with action and to not hesitate in putting me into challenging situations added to that. Remarkably, his empathy never wavered. Besides from building my capacity as a social innovator, he introduced, trained, and helped me navigate the complex operational and organizational structures necessary to know to grow in the UN system.
Continuing the norm to break the barriers, I recently accompanied him in a field mission, sending a clear message that removing physical obstacles needs a prerequisite of negating the social and mental barriers.
In the years 2020 and 2021, UNDP Pakistan deployed 65 United Nations Volunteers (UNVs), for our various programmes.