“We need to pay more attention to people”, interview with Stefan Tromel

February 2021, Part 2

Hey Debriefers,

We continue the interview with Stefan Tromel, a disability specialist within the UN system who focusses on decent work for persons with disabilities.

This part of the interview gets much deeper into how Stefan works, both professionally and personally.

It starts off with a discussion of why the International Labour Organization focusses on private sector employment for persons with disabilities. We then get into the complex questions around working on disability issues when you are not a person with disability. We close with reflections for continuing to learn and how the “infiltration strategy” can play a role going forward.

If you didn't see it, the first part “We are not the disability police” covered how the UN Disability Inclusion Strategy has changed the system, and also much more about how Stefan sees “infiltration” to influence people to adopt more measures for inclusion.

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

Conversation with Stefan

We spoke on zoom, and the conversation is edited for clarity.

Stefan at a podium with microphones - Stefan is white, brushed-back white hair and a beard, glasses, wearing a suit, making a point with his right hand
Stefan in action

Why focus on the private sector in developing countries?

Peter: Going back to the kind of technical work you do. I think everyone will be on-board with your work on social protection and data, but they might wonder about the choice of focusing on the private sector with work in developing countries?

Stefan: It's a relevant question. We need to challenge the perception that the only option for persons with disabilities in a developing country context is self-employment. We can call it entrepreneurship, sometimes it is, but most often it is lousy self-employment not leading to any decent income, nor decent work. And very often, the mindset of everybody when you look at what exists in terms of vocational training in many developing country — which is usually segregated, specialized — there's never an expectation that the trainees will become marketing specialists or IT specialists.

At worst it doesn't lead to employment at all, not even self employment. At best, well, perhaps I give you some skills that you can then become, I don't know, selling bananas in the market or fixing... I don't know, very basic, usually self employment situations. Now, we know that the majority of people, disabled or not disabled, in some of those countries work in the informal sector. So it's clear that we will still also need to make sure that people with disabilities who have only that option have that support.

We should not give up on private and public sector, and we felt that the ILO was probably in a better position than some other organizations to promote that. There are other organizations, and some of them also partnering now with us, large disability and development NGOs who have had many years working on access to to micro-finance and other areas, it's very important. And we also support that as much as possible. Nobody was really focusing proactively on trying to get the private sector — public sector also — but we started with the private sector.

“It's a game changer in terms of expectation”

What I tell ourselves, and also what I tell the private sector, especially the global companies, is that while it's important that they also promote the employment of persons with disabilities in developed country context, they should also be aware of the game changing nature when... I won't give any names now, but when a large company, in Indonesia or Philippines or China or India, when they are proactively employing persons with disabilities, and when that information is then made public and disability organizations are aware of it, it's a game changer. Because people are not having that expectation.

Even people with disabilities and their families themselves, they don't think that that is a possibility. They don't even bother to knock on the doors of companies, because they just feel that in such a context, they will not be even considered. Even the numbers of jobs that we have helped to create — I mean, it's always a joint effort — is perhaps not huge. But this increasing number of National and Business and Disability Networks that we have now in seven, eight Latin American countries, in India, Indonesia, Philippines, China, et cetera.

We think it's a game changer. Beyond the actual numbers, which might still be small, it's a game changer in terms of expectations, from all players. Vocational training institutions will no longer have an excuse now to focus only on skills that are not demanded by the labor market.

We have a better opportunity now to go to mainstream vocational training institutions and say, look, we are seeing now that companies also here in China, Indonesia, wherever you say, are willing to employ people with disabilities, but sometimes what they tell us is they can't find people with disabilities that have the right skills. Now, they don't have the right skills partly because of you. You have not made your services and facilities inclusive to persons with disabilities.

“It opens up an avenue which was closed before”

We think it opens up an avenue which was closed before, but as I said, it goes beyond the actual numbers which still might be in many cases rather small, compared also to the huge numbers of people with disabilities looking for a job. For many people with disabilities, the private sector will never be an option because perhaps they might live in a rural, remote area where it's even more difficult.

We are contributing here to a change, and I think the good news is that also many of our partners, including NGO partners — who in the past were more focusing on other issues — they've also now joined up and they're seeing that part of their efforts needs to be to support that process, to help companies become better, to help disability organizations to better understand. I think that's another key element. If you are in a disability organization, and in the past, the private sector was never an option, you either did not bother about them or you just basically said, "This private sector's terrible, they're all terrible, they would never employ us", etcetera.

The moment that you see that at least some companies in the private sector are changing their attitude, it also creates a new way of working for disability organizations which has not yet happened in many situations. Disability organizations — of course their first role is an advocacy role towards government and all that — but many organizations have realized that there needs to be also a bit of a change in the approach with the private sector. And they have seen that it pays off. It pays off when you find the right interlocutors in the company, I'm not saying that now suddenly all the companies either in developed countries nor developing countries are good.

But you have an increasing number of them, and if you use them as ambassadors towards other companies, we have seen that this business-to-business dialogue has an impact on those that have not yet considered that. It's not an easy area, but we felt that we are probably best placed to do that as ILO because we have this natural relationship with employer federations and all that. We felt that here we could make a contribution that perhaps we could do better than others. But it's fair to say that we're also aware that this will be, in terms of percentage, in terms of numbers, unfortunately it will still be initially a rather small contribution compared to the millions of persons with disabilities that are looking for a decent job in the developing country context.

A change of approach on employment

Peter: Part of the change of approach from before are the forums for business-to business-exchange. How else is it a change in approach from what came before?

Stefan: When we tried to explain to ourselves what are the issues on which we need to work to promote employment of persons with disabilities, let's say in what we call waged employment, on the payroll of a company, or it could also apply to the public sector. We basically say we need three things.

We need disability inclusive employers — I've spoken about that.

We need to make sure that people with disabilities have access to the skills that the labor market is demanding, that is, for instance to put it in context now, is particularly digital skills and all that. And there we have still a huge challenge, especially if we really want decent jobs, because we don't want just any job. Also in the private sector while persons with disabilities will probably go into the entry jobs of a company, and then they need to move up in the ladder and for that they also need to have the adequate education and training.

And the third element is an enabling environment, we need to have better legislation, we need to have better social protections, statistics, better support services which very often do not exist, companies or people with disabilities, there's nobody doing any sort of matching between the two.

The moment that everybody is seeing that companies are becoming more interested in that, it has an impact on the other two elements. It is a game changer with the vocation training system, it is a game changer in terms of government realizing that they also need to step up their game, they need to have better functioning public employment services or they need to create financial incentives or support systems in place to help people with disabilities and companies to find each other.

In a situation where companies are basically not doing anything, others will just say, "Well, why should we waste our time on this?" But now you are seeing a situation where companies are also starting to go to the governments saying almost similar things to what in the past only organizations of persons with disabilities were saying, "You need to do better on employment." Here you have a new player, and a very important player because it's, for instance, the main employer federation, giving the example of Bangladesh, they went to the government saying, "Sorry, we are willing to do our job, but you need to do your job."

And that was a game changer compared to just the disability organization going to the government and telling them to step up their game. There is another player which is starting to be an important player, it's an important player for the ILO of course, which are trade unions. Trade unions were, with many exceptions, largely not so interested on disability. It's starting to change, we are seeing Latin American region, but also in Africa, an increasing number of national trade unions that are putting disability on their agenda, and I think that will also make a significant contribution in this area.

The business case for inclusion: “It's pretty solid”

Peter: And another element is the “business case”, did we touch on that?

Stefan: Look, the more advanced companies that are part of our global network, when I ask them about the business case, they say, "This is an old question. Basically, we employ people for their talent, for what they bring to our company, and people with disabilities are part of that talent pool. Some, not everybody, but most of them." For them, this is like an old question. This is a very exceptional number of companies that would have this very advanced thinking.

The majority of them still need, for themselves or to convince their colleagues, they need this business case. And it's pretty solid. It's a business case of the benefit of a diverse workforce, which of course is not only about persons with disabilities, but also at the same time you see a lot of companies claiming that they are diverse and inclusive, but disability is not part of that grid, so it's more about gender, it's LGBT, it's ethnic identity or depending on how you phrase it. But disability is usually coming not at all or very low at the list.

The members of our global network, they would say, "Look, we know that diversity is good, it leads to better products and services, it leads to better internal organization when we have to adjust our internal practices for people on the neurodiversity spectrum, or people who are blind. In the end, the changes we did were minor but were significantly useful for everyone. It's good for our reputation, it's good for staff motivation, not just because we get motivated staff with disabilities but at the same time, the rest of our staff, they usually appreciate to see that our company is about making money — otherwise we would not be able to continue — but at the same time we also have this larger vision of society."

“We need to pay more attention to people”

I think what is interesting and especially in the COVID-19 context, and I remember the launch of the Kenya Business and Disability Network last November. It was launched by the Kenyan Employer Federation, so really the mainstream, tough employer federation. And I was listening in to the session before they were launching the network, and it was interesting to see that one of the messages coming out of the pandemic is really this issue about we need to pay more attention to people. That's a general issue.

Now, how genuine is that? I've not only heard it in that context. We were very concerned last year that the [Global Business and Disability Network] GBDN could lose half of its members, that it would not be able to continue because of COVID-19. I think it's fair to say that there were two or three months where everybody was readjusting to the new situation, trying to figure out what to do, but then in the second half of last year we saw again a reactivation of a commitment, in our national networks, and some of the global companies.

We saw more companies joining our network last year than in previous years. Those companies that have more visionary leaders, or more inclusive leaders, they have been saying that, diversity and inclusion — which includes disability, goes beyond but includes it — is not something that is only there for when times are rosy, it needs to be a key element in the strategy out of the crisis.

There's sort of a litmus test there. With that environment we've got more positive messages than when you look at COVID in a different environment in terms of [Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises] SMEs, all that is definitely much more complicated situation. When you look at it from the larger private sector perspective, in many circumstances we have seen that companies have really come out with even stronger messages around disability inclusion than before.

Peter: There's this alignment between some of the goals of disability inclusion and this renewed attention to people and the workforces.

“My added value was not the disability knowledge”

Peter: A more personal question about working on disability inclusion in the Global South. You're a white European man without disability. How do you navigate that respecting “nothing about us, without us”, and the other dynamics in play?

Stefan: I think it has been a journey, it has been a journey where probably from a situation of, let's say, where I could see myself, I was very young still, but I've been working in this area for more than 30 years. So, more than half of my life. And first in the Spanish context, there I was starting to be seen as a sort of expert on the employment of persons with disability, but still in a context where most of the experts were non-disabled people, supposedly knowing much better than the others about it.

Then I had the luxury of becoming the director of the European Disability Forum, which is a disability-led organization, bringing together all different disability constituencies, but only Europe. Still, North and South, there are differences of course within Europe, some countries are more advanced than others economically and conceptually, or it might sometimes go the other way round. It was a good experience because I had to learn on many other issues, but at the same time, I also learned that especially in that context my added value was not the disability knowledge, which was much more clear within our members.

I was supposed to have some knowledge on how the EU functions. And how can you distill from the problems and the possible solutions that disabled people know much better than anybody else, and definitely than me. How could we then move from that into proposals and initiatives that could help make a change. So I could see myself not as a disability expert, I was seeing myself as an EU expert somehow, who would help the disability movement find the right moments and initiatives to bring across their requests.

I always listened very carefully, I mean, I did not pretend to... After many, many years of listening, you start having some knowledge, but I would always be very much more in a listening mode and would only speak about certain issues not in first person but in a context where you're meeting with other people and you have to share some of the information, you will basically say, look, this is information I get from persons with disabilities, from DPOs, personal anecdotes, but I will always say this is information I have gathered in my position.

Then of course came working on [negotiation of] the UN convention. It was another huge learning curve, broadening even more all the different topics, there was some topics that did not work in European level, because they were not part of the EU competence, so issues around legal capacity, mental health, they were knew to me. I was directly exposed not only to new topics like those which were the most challenging in that negotiation, but also to the input from organizations from the South.Before then I had been very, very, very slightly in contact with them. So that, again, was a huge learning experience to really get direct exposure to the views of organizations from the Arab region, from Latin America, from the African region, which were on many issues of course significantly different from the European disability perspective.

“It was a permanent journey of listening”

It was a permanent journey of listening, of seeing also very clearly what is your role and what isn't, not trying to take over a role which would not be appreciated by... But always trying to sort of provide your added value in terms of, okay, now I know a bit more, I know well the CRPD. Then I moved on as director of the International Disability Alliance, which was similar again to the European Disability Forum, because now, okay, you're supposed to be the expert on how the UN human rights system works. Which many organizations, many people with disabilities that work in a country context, why should they know?

Our role would not be to be, "I know exactly what you need to say", no, I would say, look, these are the meetings that we need to influence, the topics, you are the ones that have to raise the topics. You know much better what is the situation in Madagascar or in Mozambique or in Egypt, wherever. What we can help you here as organization, me including, is I can give you a bit the tips on what are the entry points for these issues. Always with full respect that it's really the persons with disabilities themselves that know their situation, independently of whether they come from a developing country or not, that hasn't changed.

You to be permanently careful not to take up a role and just say, look, I'm so great, I really know everything. And there's a temptation, there's a temptation because you are male, sometimes... I mean, there is a huge lot of risks and I cannot always say that I always did a perfect job in avoiding any of those pitfalls. It requires a genuine commitment to say, okay, I know what I know, I might even know certain issues, but if there is in this room somebody who has the lived experience, and it's a lived experience of disability, it's a lived experience of being a woman, it's a lived experience of being gay or lesbian, it's a lived experience of living in a developing country.

I don't have any of those lived experiences. I've heard a lot of examples from these lived experiences, which I sometimes use in a context where there is nobody who can directly share that lived experience. But always if that person is there, I'm the one who should listen in, and continue learning in that process. I can't say that I've always done that perfectly, but I think I have increasingly learned about that, and whenever I probably did not do that, likely there were people around me that would remind me about the role that I should play, including my own family, not more far away than them.

“You need to be proactive”

Peter: It's easy for people to fall into the trap that they think their expertise is bigger than the lived experience.

Stefan: There is a challenge which is there's a risk for organizations where you have a secretariat, disabled or not, but very often secretariats have a lot of non-disabled staff, and this staff is directly aware of EU processes, UN processes. Sometimes there's a huge gap between that secretariat and the membership of that organization. It's a knowledge gap not in terms of disability — that knowledge is within the members and not within the secretariat — but there is more knowledge in the secretariat because that should be their role, they need to understand how the UN system works and if not they should be looking for another job.

You cannot expect that the members know about that. That is a big risk there, and you need to be proactive. It's a risk that you can never avoid, because the members will never have the time to be full time experts on whichever international process, and that's also not their role. At the same time, if you are not careful in managing that knowledge gap, there's a huge risk of organizations being very much secretariat-led, and getting far away from their members and then that is not good. And I think it's sort of a permanent process where you need to make sure that that problem doesn't arise.

It's almost a problem that is inherent to these type of organizations, and it goes beyond disability, it happens to any international organization. I think it needs to be made visible and needs to be proactively addressed. Knowing it's always a process, but you cannot just say, "look, what can I do?" No, you have to deal with that problem upfront and try to limit as much as possible.

“You're just creating this fortress that people can't access”

Peter: Being proactive means the listening, and giving space to amplifying voices.

Stefan: It's also capacity building, it's trying to explain those processes using not a lot of jargon. We are very good in using jargon and acronyms, and after three sentences you think that you are explaining something and everybody's sort of looking at their mobiles saying, "What the hell is this guy talking about?" And even if they would trust you, which normally they would, sometimes not, it's still bad. It's still bad because then at the end of the day, that is not a good problem. You need to make a huge effort in providing very clear information of how these processes work.

Otherwise it's very cozy and comfortable to all speak about this global disability jargon which is hard to understand, and then all the others are excluded. It's also a way of protecting your power, so to say. I think that's really a huge risk, it can happen in any organization, NGO, definitely in the UN system, we are extremely good in the UN system to come up with new acronyms which we sometimes struggle to understand. And then you're just creating this fortress which people can't access.

“We need to continue pushing”

Peter: We should wrap up. Do you have any closing thoughts to offer the audience of the newsletter?

Stefan: The situation is still very bad, and COVID-19 hasn't helped. I think at the same time, we also need to see the progress that we've made. I know that when you look at that progress from an individual perspective in a developing country, you just don't see it: “this has not benefited me”. At the same time, having the UN convention, having the explicit reference in the SDGs to persons with disabilities, seeing how disability is now on the humanitarian, on the disaster risk reduction agenda, it is coming up on the peace and security agenda… These are huge changes, which we would not have dreamed about just 15 years ago, even 10 years ago. And I think we just need to keep — I mean, resilience is a key issue in any area of work…

Peter: … resilience?

Stefan: We need to believe that, we need to continue pushing, we cannot just say “I give up”, or just say “no”. Think, take time, if there hadn't been progress, if there had been no increased attention to persons with disabilities in policy, in private sector, etcetera, et cetera, then yes. But I think there is a lot of progress there, coming myself from disability organizations and now working with the other side of the fence (or however you want to describe it).

For me a key issue in my work is to be permanently open to criticism from outside but also be self critical. We can always do better and different, no? I think that that applies to everybody. Nobody should see themselves as beyond that self criticism. I think there is also much that disability organizations, for instance, need to self critically assess, and I know they are doing it, but I think the only way of continually improving is not taking things for granted. It's not just looking at how bad the others are, which many of them are bad and need to do better, but at the same time also saying what are we doing as best as possible?

“We should sometimes change our mode of thinking”

Perhaps we should sometimes change our mode of thinking at least with some of our partners or potential partners. Advocacy and confrontational advocacy is sometimes needed, fully agree, and sometimes perhaps we need other approaches. When we speak with trade unions, which the disability sector rarely speaks, we probably need to have a different language. There's a need to understand them better, and not just say, "Trade unions don't care about us", or, "Employers don't care about us", or, "The media don't care about us." Right, sometimes that's the truth, but if you just leave it at that level… It goes back to my idea of infiltration, if you don't identify within the trade union movement, if you don't identify in the media, and with employer federations and employer champions with and without disabilities, well, in 10 years time you will continue having the same valid criticism, which is nice, you get it off your chest.

At the end of the day, we want to promote change. And I think change requires building partnerships, building alliances, sometimes those allies will not immediately use exactly the terminology that we would use. I see working with the private sector, sometimes I humbly tell them, look, why are you using "special needs" or "diverse abilities", political correctness comes in sometimes. You don't confront them telling them this is rubbish. No, you tell them, look, this is not the term that persons with disabilities use.

You have to find your ways of getting things across without losing that ally, that ally wants to do something but you just need to help them, and if you sort of come across to them in a confrontational way, it's an ally you have lost. And I think we just need to have more allies in all different sectors that we can think of, and that sometimes requires a different strategy, no? Perhaps it's this infiltration strategy.

Peter: That's one of the key reasons I wanted to do this interview: your way of working is one of the ways that we can use as a model to go forward. Thank you Stefan.

Stefan: Pleasure, great talking to you. Bye-bye.

Further Reading

For a handy summary of the approach to promoting employment that Stefan talks about, see the ILO infostory on the win-win of disability inclusion. To get in deeper, see the ILO's Disability and Work page, or the Global Business and Disability Network site (they have a good newsletter too!).

A piece of work that I did with Stefan over the past few years was an attempt to get out of the “fortress” of jargon, and state simply what our positions were on disability and work. The result was Key Issues on promoting employment of persons with disabilities, where we answer around fifty of the most common questions that are asked about promoting employment for persons with disabilities.

If Stefan's discussion about infiltration whetted your appetite then I personally found a lot of resemblance to this style of work in the article “Policy Entrepreneurship at the White House: Getting things done in large organizations” (link to pdf, by Thomas Kalil). If you don't have time for the whole thing, see the twelve maxims for getting things done, starting on page 12.


To echo the acknowledgements of last week - principally to Stefan for being open for some tricky but important questions, and to those that helped me think it through.

Also, many thanks to all of you for reading and sharing. It's what keeps this thing going.

Until next time,