More people with special needs are gaining employment in the UAE thanks to the combined efforts of several businesses and training institutions.

Emirates NBD's Careers Network operates a free service to help match employers with special needs employees on the condition that employees work for at least one year.

Through this initiative, since November 2016, 17 candidates with learning difficulties have found full or part-time jobs in diverse roles, from customer service to housekeeping and the insurance sector. In an effort to boost awareness of the benefits of employing disabled workers, a recent Careers Network workshop enabled 25 potential candidates to meet with 30 prospective employers.

The Careers Network involves several partners, including Manzil – one of the region's longest-running non-profit groups focusing on the social inclusion of people with disabilities; the Community Development Authority (CDA) – responsible for setting up and developing frameworks for social development in Dubai; Sustainable Square – a ‘micro-multinational’ firm specialising in organisational sustainability, transparency and disclosure, responsible investment and social impact; and other private sector organisations.

The Careers Network helps those with cognitive disabilities, who after the age of 18 finish their specialised schooling and have to return home. The programme supports the selection, recruitment and training of potential employees, as well as advising employers on how to create a socially inclusive environment for special needs employees.

The Desert Group, a sustainable design and landscape company in Dubai, employs people with cognitive disabilities – especially people with Down's syndrome – as part of its CSR programme. CEO Michael Mascarenhas believes there is a good business case for taking the time to recruit and train special needs employees. He said: “We assess the best fit, following the simple principles of recruitment. We hired a trainer and counsellor, as well as organising a transport programme to pick up employees from home. There are extra expenses to recruitment, and it can be a challenge to persuade parents to trust in us, but in the long term we have highly engaged employees.”

Cognitively challenged employees are performing extremely well, according to Mascarenhas, and have been given the opportunity to find and develop their talents with positive results – including one employee who has become one of the best salesman Desert Group has.

Mascarenhas and his board of directors all strongly believe in the potential of people with special needs, he says – and they want to set an example to other corporations to show that taking the time to nurture disabled employees has a positive effect not only for the individual, but also for the business and the company brand.

“My customers view me differently – they want to work with us, they love what we do,” said Mascarenhas. “If you employ people with special needs, your company culture will change. There will be a tectonic shift in operations.”

Many organisations reported a lower attrition rate among disabled workers, and said this group represents an untapped part of the labour market.

A collaboration in 2013 between the Ministry of Social Affairs and Majid Al Futtaim Ventures also provided training and development for disabled people. The Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs (ZHO) offered training in precision machining and the production of PVC parts in 2011, creating 400 jobs for people with physical disabilities.

And in 2011, the CDA launched the Elkayt (Arabic for lifeboat) scheme, designed to help disabled Emiratis find private sector work – the scheme offered an Dhs800 allowance to company line managers for six months on the condition they filled out a monthly report on the disabled employees' progress.

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