"We are not the Disability Police" Interview with Stefan Tromel

February 2021, Part 1

Hey Debriefers,

This year the newsletter will feature interviews with people doing the work on disability rights showcased in the news updates. We're going behind-the-scenes to have frank conversations about who we are and how we work.

First off is Stefan Tromel: a specialist on disability in the United Nations system. This week we talk about big changes within the UN on disability, and about Stefan's strategies for “infiltration” — changing how a complex organization works on disability.

See the second part of the conversation, “We need to pay more attention to people”, where we get more into promoting employment of persons with disabilities and how Stefan works on disability as a person without disability.

Disability Debrief is made by me, Peter Torres Fremlin, a freelance consultant. With many thanks to Stefan for taking the time to share openly in this interview.


I'm always telling people about what I've learned from Stefan so I'm thrilled to be able to share this conversation. For much of his career Stefan was working within the disability movement — now as Senior Specialist on Disability in the International Labour Organization (ILO), he promotes decent work for persons with disabilities.

One of the decent work for persons with disabilities he promoted was hiring me back in 2015 — a big shift in life and career as I went for a short-term position in Geneva, and to this day keep up consultancy work with the same team.

I assumed that the move to Geneva would be a chance to connect with other folks working on disability. In some ways it was, but Stefan quickly guided me to the importance of finding ways to engage our other colleagues who didn't know so much about disability.

It's not easy to engage busy colleagues on disability issues, and methods to do that are one of the key things this interview gets into. At that stage we did it with more passion and cunning than mandate: we get into detail on the ways it's successful and pitfalls to avoid. As Stefan describes, a lot has changed since then with the development and implementation of the UN Disability Inclusion Strategy, and the interview starts with why that was needed and how it was developed.

Next week the second part of this interview will explore more in more detail how Stefan works. As well as the how the ILO is changing the way we approach employment of persons with disabilities, we get into how Stefan works on disability as a person without a disability, and his reflections on how we go forward in 2021.

Keeping things in the family, Stefan is the husband of our previous guest on Disability Debrief, Catalina Devandas.

Conversation with Stefan

We spoke on Zoom: here's our conversation edited for clarity.

Portrait photo of Stefan, a white man in glasses with greying hair, glasses, wry smile, formal shirt and tie
Stefan before he grew a beard

Working in the United Nations on disability

Peter: What do you do as senior specialist on disability at the ILO?

Stefan: Well, as you know the ILO is the International Labor Organization. We are one of the UN entities — what we call a “specialized agency” — and have a specific focus on employment and social protection issues. Which of course are important for persons with disabilities. Within the ILO, my position is senior disability specialist which means I am head of a small team. In fact, five, six people at this stage, which is reasonably large compared to other UN entities in terms what they have in terms of disability teams.

The way I would describe the work that we do in our team is that on the one hand we do work which is specifically tied to persons with disabilities. One of the areas that we deal with is providing the Secretariat to the ILO Global Business and Disability Network. We also do work specifically on some social protection, statistics, et cetera, et cetera. So, it's quite a lot of disability-specific work, mostly with a strong focus  on developing countries, like other UN entities. But then also very importantly we promote the mainstreaming of disability within the ILO. We try to assure that whenever colleagues work on issues of, for instance,  youth employment or on vocational training or on green jobs, that they think about persons with disabilities in that context, which is not a given.

To some extent this mainstreaming, we now have more leverage than before thanks to the United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy, UNDIS, to which we contributed quite significantly in terms of the development. We felt that having such a strategy would help all UN entities but also ourselves to have much more leverage in terms of promoting disability inclusion across our organization.

“Across our organization” means at headquarters, it means in policy work but also it means in terms of organizational meetings, in terms of communication. Procurement was an issue that nobody had really given much thought about, how to use procurement to promote accessibility and all that. It’s also both in headquarters and in the field, and that's a huge challenge, and the UN was not doing its best and it was recognized at very top level, and that led them to give the green light for the development of this strategy, which was endorsed at the top level of the UN in 2019.

UNDIS requires now all of the UN entities to report on an annual basis on how we are including persons with disabilities in a number of 15 more or less different areas. And it's having a significant impact, I mean, it's a process, but it's really a game changer within the UN system. Also in an organization like the ILO, which had been working on it already for many, many years, no? But, still, not in the sufficiently systematic and consistent way.

“This cannot continue”: the need for a strategy in the UN

Peter: Say a bit more about how UNDIS has been a game changer?

Stefan: Look, what we had before was basically we were coming together from time to time, the different disability specialists that there are in organizations like UNICEF, UNDP, WHO, and others. Many organizations, even larger ones, did not even have a position focusing on disability, but those organizations that had a disability position, we were coming together. And what we were sharing with each other was always examples of good practice - "we're doing this here, and we have an office in Manila, they're really great, no?"

And then at a certain point we said, look, I mean, I heard about your Manila office now three times already, there's something wrong here because it seems that we are just always sort of on a very voluntary approach for whatever reason the specific office is doing something. Perhaps sometimes because a bit of funding, sometimes because there is a commitment at a personal level in the director. But that's not good enough, no? And on top of it, as I was saying, there were large UN entities which had not even had any focus on disability.

So we said this cannot continue like that, we need to create something that provokes a change and we looked around and what we saw is that in the context of gender, some 10 years ago, they were facing more or less the same problem, and they came up with something which is in the UN jargon called the Gender SWAP [System-Wide Action Plan]. Which was also our working title initially, “Disability SWAP”, but what at the end means, it's an accountability framework. And also we came up with a number of areas which basically cover all the work we do, more relevant for some entities than other, and the UN entities are very diverse from very large to very small. But all of them are affected by most of those areas, if not all of them.

"Music to our ears”: implementing the disability strategy

Now what we need to do is we need to explain to the UN and to our own bosses how we are performing against these areas with very defined indicators and we have to do that on a yearly basis both by submitting the report, but also in the case of the ILO we will need to explain to our Governing Body how we're doing and we have to explain why we are not doing yet well in a certain number of areas.

And in the case of the ILO, we've also strongly benefited from a discussion in our board, our governing body, which happened end of November. They were aware of the UN strategy. We presented to them our plans, how we are planning to implement that in the ILO context, and the good news is we got a huge level of support for it and even strong pressure from all of the "constituents", which in our case are governments and employer federations and trade unions, they were all basically saying, "Long overdue, and please keep ILO leadership, we want to hear from you at least every second year on how you are progressing against clearly established indicators and targets". So, strong leverage, strong pressure now on the organization.

For us, as disability team, it's really music to our ears, because we can now achieve things, not imposing things on others, we don't like that, but really having a leverage towards our colleagues that is unprecedented. At the same time, we have been working with those colleagues in the run up of the strategy, and we had already achieved a good number of very committed champions in very different departments that we were able to sort of get on board of the process. To contribute to it, but also to get to own the process, and really colleagues that have realized that, as I said, it was long overdue, an organization like the ILO which we praise ourselves for social justice, we have the Leave No One Behind model at the UN.

Well, sometimes those slogans stay as words, and are not implemented in practice, no? And I think we've managed to get a very significant level of I would say genuine commitment from colleagues in very different areas like those I had mentioned, that really think that we as ILO need to do better.

“We don't want to be seen as the disability police”

Peter: UNDIS has changed disability from a “nice to do” to a “have to do”?

Stefan: Exactly. But we try to continue to be nice people to our colleagues. We have now sort of a leverage to really get them doing, but as I said, we don't want to be seen as the disability police, and sometimes there is a risk that people perceive you as that. And I must admit, we are at the beginning of the process, we are a bit concerned because we felt that people could not just in the ILO, in general in the UN, people in the human resource department, in the communication department, they would say, "No, that's another issue, we have the gender commitment, we have do something on youth."

It was not the reaction, I mean, we got some questions from colleagues from other entities saying, "Isn't this very late that we're doing it?" And we said, yeah, it's late, better late than never. We did not receive almost any sort of reaction of, let's say, a fatigue of “another group that we need to think of when are doing things”, it was not the way it worked out. And I think that made us also extremely excited. I think we have ambitious objectives but they can be achieved gradually because this is a process, and in certain areas, we are basically starting from scratch.

Peter: You've talked about “mainstreaming”, but people that know you will have heard you use the word “infiltration”. Can you say why you use that word? Do you still use it now we have this bigger framework?

Stefan: I think we still use it. A bit of a provoking word, "mainstreaming" sometimes sounds a bit boring. But mainstreaming is still the objective. I mean, the objective, call it mainstreaming, call it something else, the objective that we have and UNDIS is a clear example of as a United Nations strategy, we want to make sure that any organization, like the ILO, systematically includes persons with disabilities in whatever they're doing.

Peter: And that's both in external work and internal policies?

Stefan: Exactly. I mean, the strategy, what leads is a good question, is it internal or is it external? Well, it's first getting our own house in order, because the house was not in order. Because if we want in our external work, what we call in our work with constituents, when we provide them technical assistance on revision of labor legislation, on strengthening of a skills development system, on youth employment. If the colleagues in the ILO that provide this technical assistance to governments, employers, trade unions, if they don't know about disability, disability will not appear in those discussions.

So we will still be restricted to, yes, having a dialogue specific on disability which we will have as a small disability team in the headquarters. Now, the only way to really get this throughout the organization, that's where the infiltration comes in. We need to have colleagues in headquarters, in all the field offices, that know about disability, that are committed to disability, that know how to approach disability in-line with the UN convention, in-line with the social model of disability and not sort of old ways of thinking which as you know are still extremely prevalent.

“The Infiltration Strategy”

For the infiltration strategy, we need to identify colleagues that in their area of work are committed to including persons with disabilities. And we then of course need to provide support to them, and that's a bit our role. So our role is, for instance, we have now this discussion with starting all the foundations of the strategy, should we have a network of disability focal points that every department, every field office needs?

Now, there are two ways of going about that. One is to say, okay, now we've sent an email to every field office saying you have to appoint a focal point. And somebody, probably somebody more or less junior, will say, "Now, it's you", and people will say, "Great, I already had 10 things to do, now I have 11", and you know how well they will do that. We think that's not the way to go. We have already, in many departments and in many field offices, we have champions. People that with whom we have been in contact over the past.

Sometimes they have been doing their disability work almost as pro bono, outside. Now we want to formalize that, but we don't want to have colleagues that work on disability that are not genuinely interested and committed to it. And as I said, the good news is that they are more and more. And then of course, it's our role to be there to provide support to them, to organize meetings, to bringing them together so they can learn from each other. Keep them up to date with developments, be there as available to support them if needed.

But we don't see ourselves as the bad people, calling somebody saying, "Well, you have not done anything", that's not the way we approach our work. And, so, to some extent, as you know very frequently in a disability context, we still always make the pitch. I mean, yes, now we have a certain obligation towards the UN, but we still think that's it's very important to make a pitch to our colleagues. Why is it good for them that they include persons with disabilities in their work?

I mean, how can a youth employment expert, how can he or she not think about youth with disabilities? You'd be leaving out a significant part of your target group. You will not be able to deliver well on that. And I think we need to continue to be able to provide those angles so that people see also why is it good for them, professionally, sometimes also personally, to include disability in their work.

So, that's a bit partly infiltration but it's also the way I see the role of our team versus, let's say, we are now the bad people trying to make sure that everybody is doing their job. We can do that in a way that we engage with people and people are not starting to hide away from us in corridors because they fear they have not yet delivered what they have to do.

“From Colleague to Colleague”

Peter: It moves away some of the traditional forms of activism that are quite confrontational.

Stefan: There is a difference between... I mean, I was an activist before, and so I was working from outside the UN system, outside the EU system, and more in the past.

Peter: You were working with Disabled People's Organizations?

Stefan: Exactly, always with Disabled People's Organizations, but sometimes as the main advocacy organization towards the European Union and then when I was director of the International Disability Alliance towards the UN system. Of course, when you work from outside, I mean, you still try to be... Confrontation usually doesn't help too much. But sometimes you have to be, sometimes things are really working pretty bad, you have to be confrontational.

The moment you work from inside, you don't forget completely your advocacy role, you still have an advocacy role, but you play it out in a different way, no? Because you are already talking from colleague to colleague, no? And then I think if you sort of continue in a very confrontational mode, well then I don't think that that works out. I think there you really have to change gear a bit, you need to be pushy, remindful, but let's say you have a capacity to influence from inside which you don't have when you're from outside.

Outside you have two or three moments or occasions to interact with somebody in an organization. The moment you are a colleague, that interaction can be much more, first it's from peer to peer, and it's much more frequent. So I think somehow you need to rethink your strategies because you are in a different situation, there are certain things you cannot do as well as before. At the same time there are possibilities there which you can exploit and you need to change a bit the strategy. Still, the end goal is the same, but I think there are opportunities there. One needs to realize that I need to do it slightly different than before.

“Let's do something together”

Peter: And do you have favourite ways of generating interest in colleagues?

Stefan: One of the ways is “let's do something together”. It's not always possible, but the more we have been able to do joint projects, for instance we have our social protection department, which is very large in the ILO. They're currently leading on a disability project. Now, we got the funding, we could've decided to keep that funding for us and involve them, and we said, no, the funding goes to you, you run with the project, we are there to provide technical advice. But if you don't own that project, you will not get into it, you will always be like invited guests and yeah it's nice, nice.

No, go with it, run with it, take the funding, and learn. Now, that is the extreme example. In other occasions what we have done is we have come up with a policy paper on, I don't know, vocational training and persons with disabilities or on public employment services or on green jobs. And of course there we do those papers with them, it's not that we prepare them, first we often lack the knowledge of that specific area, but even if we had the knowledge, we should do it from the beginning with them. It's not like coming to them five minutes before midnight saying, by the way, we have now this finished, can you endorse it?

We do it from the beginning, we identify jointly a consultant and we agree on the terms of reference. Ideally we co-fund it, money also creates ownership, sometimes we have to fund it because sometimes they fund it, it varies. So, these would be for me examples of I would say really it's meaningful and engaged. And as said, that works more with policy departments, I mean, like ourselves. So we always try to identify these coming togethers.

And then, of course, although we are there to provide advice on, let's say, there's a mainstream publication, I don't know, on wages which is one big issue for the ILO. We will try there to be as helpful as possible for them to have the right information on time, and all that, because they are colleagues like ourselves who are extremely busy.

The other important thing to remember was that people are extremely busy with their own many things. So if you just go there and say you have to do something, well, nothing will happen. The moment you go there saying you should do something but, by the way, here we have identified some statistics on the wage gap of persons with disabilities, here we have this information, sometimes what we do is we connect different parts of the organization with each other on disability, because sometimes there is some information on the statistics department on disability which we know, but the people working on that topic might not know that this... So, but these are some of the strategy or tactics that we use to influence our colleagues.

“We need to make sure that they have the right level of knowledge.”

Peter: so the role is is shifting from owning disability work to supporting others to do it well. We're going to have less control over, for instance, colleagues being interested and committed. How do we manage that shift and the risks that it has?

Stefan: The main challenge of the successful implementation of the UN strategy and the same now within the ILO is, okay, now we probably have achieved a situation where more people are doing things on disability — for whatever reason (very often for good reasons). But unless we accompany that process with at least some capacity building, there's a huge risk that people will deal with that in the wrong way.

I would say that there is no absolute guarantee against that. I mean, one could sort of not sleep all night, just being concerned that people are doing work on disability, because you just can't control. But that's a good sign, it's a good problem to have. Now, you need to tackle the problem to some extent, but at the same time also accept that sometimes, and we have seen that also within the ILO, sometimes there are situations where when you hear what a specific project has been doing on disability you say, “okay, it would've been good to speak with that colleague some time ago to get some basic issues right”.

We need to accompany the strategy with, and we're starting to do so, with capacity building. For instance in the ILO we have an online training which all staff could do. We are doing what they call disability equality training, we have come up now with a virtual modality of that, because of the current situation but also because it's just more resource effective. So, we need to identify, especially for colleagues that will have a significant involvement and permanent one on disability issues, we need to make sure that they have the right level of knowledge.

Some of them already have it, they've acquired it through different means, but others we need to promote that. But at the same time, there's no risk zero, it's clear that sometimes things will get wrong, but that's our role to be there, to be available for support. We are always happy when people reach out to us. Perhaps in other areas one would say, look, everybody should know everything about gender so you should not go back to the gender team on everything. We are still in a different situation.

We are not unhappy if somebody asks for advice. Sometimes we prefer that to if they go on their own, and then they do things not always in the best possible way. We can limit that risk by proactively providing this capacity and training, but at the same time, and of course always be available there for people when they come to us, they always get a response as good as possible. But, yeah, there is no risk zero, definitely what we are seeing is that a huge number of ILO staff, UN staff, who are now working on disability, full-time or part-time, and you cannot always ensure that everything they will be doing will be, absolutely CRPD compliant, whatever that means. But, look, that problem is from the previous problem where nobody bothered.

Peter: it's great to hear how you describe your work because it's this challenge of strategically deploying disability expertise in the limited capacity that we have.

See the second part for the rest of the conversation: “we need to pay more attention to people”.


Sincere thanks to Stefan's willingness to share again what he's shared with me through the years.

The idea of these interviews comes out of conversations with many friends and colleagues, and I really appreciate all those that helped me think them through. Among others, the original impetus comes from the conversation with the supportive and often-provocative Alex Cote. Tobias Denkus suggested the importance of UN officials reflecting in public about what they do. Brendan Roach and Maureen Gilbert helped me think of questions to ask Stefan.

All best and until next time,