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Persons with Disabilities: A Strong but Unseen Force of Humanity

Ashoka Philippines


Persons with Disabilities: A Strong but Unseen Force of Humanity

Ryan Gersava speaks at Fellows Talk Session 1 at "TED2022: A New Era."


There are over 1 billion people in the world with disabilities according to the World Health Organization. That’s about 15% of the world’s population, 1 out of 7. But it’s rare to see them at school and very few of them are in the workplace because 90% of children with disabilities do not attend school, an estimate by the Global Partnership for Education. The United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs reports that 80% – 90% of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) of working age in developing countries are unemployed. The International Labour Organization reports that workplace exclusion of People with Disabilities deprives the world of up to US$ 1.94 trillion in annual GDP.

To complicate matters, not all 1 billion Persons with Disabilities worldwide are on wheelchairs, blind, or deaf. 70% of disabilities are non-apparent.

Employment discrimination is what triggered Ryan Gersava of the Philippines to establish Virtualahan, a company that champions inclusivity. Due to a diagnosis, no companies in the Philippines would employ him even after he obtained his license as a medical technologist.

Virtualahan is a social enterprise that provides skills training for online employment to marginalized communities like Persons with Disabilities, solo parents, out-of-school youth, recovering addicts, Indigenous People, and People Deprived of Liberty. Over 1,000 scholars have completed the program where sign language interpreters are provided for deaf students. About 70% of the graduates are now employed, mostly on work-at-home set-up, with income that is around 60% higher than the minimum wage.

Aside from building capacities, Virtualahan seeks to bridge the gap between employers and job-seekers from marginalized communities in various ways. The social enterprise partners with other companies to provide one-on-one mentorship with their graduates to further improve their job skills like English communication and taking job interviews. To balance both sides of the equation, Virtualahan equips employment partners to be embrace inclusive hiring through training and workshops. Virtualahan alumni also mentor new graduates to increase their chances of landing a job.

Virtualahan promotes a culture of compassion, inclusion, and empowerment. Students are provided with well-being sessions that help them process their negative experiences and transform these to become a source of motivation. The process leads them to embrace their disability/condition as part of their identity rather than a struggle.

This year’s theme of International Day of People with Disabilities, held every December 3, is: “Transformative solutions for inclusive development: the role of innovation in fueling an accessible and equitable world.”  Virtualahan proved that with the right mindset and reasonable accommodation, the potential of these vulnerable sectors can be harnessed for inclusive growth. To achieve that, we have to change the way we see disability. People with Disabilities are people with rights to education, decent work, and an inclusive society.

Virtualahan founder Ryan Gersava is the first Filipino to win the World Summit Awards under Young Innovators category in 2020 as recognition of the organization’s contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. He was elected into the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019 for his systems-changing work.

Ryan Gersava’s TED Fellow portrait shot by Bret Hartman.

Ryan is also the only Filipino who has been selected as a TED Fellow in its 2022 class. In his TED Talk, Gersava said that in order to build a world where all people — including those with disabilities and chronic illnesses — can find belonging, we have to start with healing. Through a blog article published by TED, Gersava is calling on organizations to invest in talent with disabilities, and for everyone investigate their biases around disability and chronic illness, which make it difficult and painful for people to disclose their conditions. “There’s no need to suffer in silence anymore,” Gersava says. “I invite you to be part of this movement.”

Inclusion is one of the world issues that TED Fellows discusses this year. Other critical issues like mental health, conservation, and the Metaverse are tacked by 20 global visionaries.

Founded in 2009, the TED Fellows program now has 532 Fellows from more than 100 countries. In its thirteen-year history, the TED Fellows program has created a powerful, far-reaching network made up of scientists, doctors, activists, artists, entrepreneurs, inventors, journalists and beyond.

Learn more about the talks of the 2022 TED Fellows.

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