UNHCR: Giving people with disabilities the power to change the world
“At the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), if you have the relevant experience, your voice will be heard,” says Dominique Fotsing, who operates as a Protection Associate managing the registration, documentation and monitoring of refugees. “My message to anyone with a disability is that they should get involved with UNHCR and help us to respond to humanitarian crises around the world.”
However, he goes on to note that it has not always been so easy for people with disabilities to make their mark. When Mr Fotsing, who has mobility issues due to impairment of his right leg, joined UNHCR back in 2005, diversity, accessibility and inclusion were topics that were not commonly discussed. In particular, the design of his office and its furniture presented challenges, but as a relatively junior member of the team he did not feel comfortable asking for adjustments and simply wanted to blend in and get on with his job.
“My supervisors informed me that there were some functions I simply couldn’t perform due to my disability,” he recalls. “It took nearly two years and a very courageous manager before I was authorised to undertake my first field mission. That was a real victory for me, but in most of the field offices there were no accommodations for people with disabilities and the managers were left to look after me, which should really have been the organisation’s responsibility. However, I certainly don’t blame UNHCR as they didn’t have a high proportion of people with disabilities – only in 2020 did I acquire a colleague with disabilities, which were clearly visible.”
UNHCR has transformed its approach over the last seven years, with the introduction of new policies, rules and regulations, a new approach to recruitment and the availability of accessibility tools. The organisation has also created a medical support unit, which makes a huge difference for people with disabilities. There’s now deep awareness of disability and inclusion issues at all levels – UNHCR is keen to recognise people for their skills and talents, whatever the challenges they face.
As Mr Fotsing notes, “People with disabilities are now encouraged to apply for any roles they wish, including in the field, and UNHCR will go the extra mile to create accommodations for them. Our new platform Workday should help colleagues with disabilities to demonstrate their potential and share their needs, whilst ongoing advocacy and lobbying is creating a truly representative and inclusive workplace where people with disabilities get to participate in taking the big decisions.”
He is particularly keen to see more people with disabilities join the organisation. As he puts it: “The more people with disabilities we have sharing their voices, the more sustainable and inclusive we will become. After all, many of the people we serve in the field have disabilities and when they see their own conditions reflected in UNHCR’s workforce, this will inspire them and give them the hope and strength to pursue their dreams – just as I did.”