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Why We Serve People with Disabilities: Lessons from Iraq

Published 12/10/2018 by Global Communities

By Elissa McCarter-LaBorde, CEO of Vitas Group. Originally published on the Center for Financial Inclusion website.
In 2014, Vitas launched a special needs loan program in Iraq, made available to people with disabilities (PwDs), particularly youth. The loan amounts range from US $100 to $3,000. Our current portfolio of almost $200,000 includes nearly 300 clients.

What was the need for a product to reach this segment?
We realized that there were huge negative misperceptions around and persistent stigmas associated with PwDs. People who are blind, deaf, partially paralyzed, have missing limbs, or have other special needs were mostly excluded from parts of society. Successive governments have failed to address the problem and the stigma has remained. We believe that PwDs have tremendous potential to be productive contributors to their communities, yet they are not given the tools to do so. Furthermore, natural disasters and conflicts create even greater numbers of PwDs, rendering this problem more acute. However, with a tailored approach to provide support, we believe that many PwDs can reach their full potential and become active and vigorous social and economic participants.

Young PwDs
According to the World Health Organization, during the years of war and the various disasters that have followed, the number of PwDs in Iraq has now reached approximately 2 million. A significant number of these are youth. It was vital for us to recognize disabled Iraqi youth as an opportunity rather than a problem. Contrary to the commonly-held belief that PwDs cannot be good clients because of their perceived inability to work, our experience has proven that PwDs do make good clients.

What is the impact?
The current political environment in Iraq leaves PwDs completely neglected by the government. Since launching our product two years ago, we are proud to report that the results are extremely encouraging. There has been a positive increase in social capital overall, such as improved self-esteem for PwDs and pride among members who have supported them. More importantly, we have been able to work toward changing social perceptions.Scalability

Vitas’ outlook toward financial inclusion for PwDs is to increase the special needs loan outreach by implementing improved processes and tools, training staff to increase awareness, and continuing to organize and sponsor initiatives aiming at supporting these important members of our society. We want to establish strategic partnerships with various government institutions such as the Ministry of Social Affairs, civil society and local associations, to reach larger numbers of PwDs, and empower them to generate their own incomes and improve their standard of living.

There is a double social impact in changing harmful and ill-informed biases and unlocking the potential of PwDs to live full and productive lives. Given our experience in Iraq, we feel there is an opportunity to offer similar products across the Middle East. To this end, we have also renewed our focus on offering employment opportunities to PwDs at our subsidiaries. Breaking down this entrenched stigma takes time, but it is critical to fulfil our mission that all people should have access to the financial tools they need to improve their lives and become full social and economic participants within their communities.
Read about CFI’s work on the topic of PwDs here.