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  • Writer's picturePhilip J Connolly

"Touchyfeely": enabling disabled people to create markets that in turn employ them

Businesses often thrive on the strength of the founders back story. It’s why in Dragon's Den an oft repeated question is "tell me about yourself." They are probing their legitimacy. Blind and partially sighted people may have legitimacy when it comes to welcomed touch. Many of us have stories to tell of using embossed maps, tactile paving, braille or simply being escorted or guided with a stranger's arm on your elbow. Of course welcomed touch isn't just of value to people with sight loss. People buy products based on touch: comfort blankets, more sensitive clothes to wear next to the skin, shoe insoles, touch therapies, spa treatments, holidays with spa treatments and so on. Now supposing I mused we could connect these to the employment benefit of some of the 23,000 blind and partially sighted people who are unemployed but keen to work. The connection could be via a catalogue. The catalogue could feature the work of people with sight loss who make or market these products or services. The catalogue could feature the massage therapists with sight loss and make it possible to buy a gift card for a treatment that the recipient could redeem with one of the therapists. It could be called the "Touchfeely catalogue." It could feature people with sight loss working in other countries such as "Seeing hands" in Cambodia. The catalogue might only exist on line so it can be easily updated but then again it's nice to be able to touch glossy paper.

The "Touchfeely" possibility illustrates that not all policy intervention needs to be directed at the Government nor have government support to progress though of course the Government may oil the wheels by sponsoring the acquisition of the skills. One attractive feature of the policy is that the workers or therapists could self - organise its production and the advocacy organisation promote it to give it profile. In such a way policy is self-achieving and about the creation of markets and not simply about their regulation. Naturally this works fine for the hypothetical "touchyfeely" where the workers and therapists can protect their incomes but minimum wage protection is necessary for example to protect freelancers operating in global markets.

A further extension of this thinking sought to widen opportunities for work beyond people with sight loss who had skills to those with sight loss who had no recognised or accredited skills. In 2011 I organised the "Blind Bit of Difference Business Competition" initially in partnership with London Business school and UCL but later with Cambridge and Birmingham Universities. The task was to develop a business plan that could be scaled to offer thousands of quality jobs to unskilled people with sight loss or a tool that would overcome barriers to the labour market. The winning entry was a five year business plan that offered 6000 jobs. The jobs were using voice over the internet protocols for people with sight loss to teach Chinese students conversational English. The idea is a little like the "Slithers of Time" concept whereby people such as those teaching conversational English can advertise their availability on line and be paid for the time they work. Such an approach may offer meaningful opportunities for the large number of people with fluctuating health conditions. Once again it is a market-based approach and its assumptions need testing.

So how should disability employment policy develop? Firstly the audience for policy needs to be wider than Government intervention to include self-organising and self-sustaining market-based options for disabled people. This is not alien territory as there are proportionately more disabled people in self-employment than non-disabled people. Next there should be a joint job creation and health unit jointly sponsored by DWP and BEIS modelled on an accelerator lab. It could feature in the proposed disability enterprise strategy and as part of the forthcoming DWP white paper. It must feature disabled people at all levels of enterprise. It must look at the issue of government loans and credit including the performance of the Business Bank in this regard. The welfare to work providers and even trade unions could and should establish job creation policies and business plans. Finally, Government disability policy needs to become ..................(fill in the gap, remember we don't yet have all the answers but we might when we have all yours).

The Disability Resilience Network invites you to go to and fill in the membership form there. Please share your views on the creation of markets with us, when you submit the form to us.


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