Preeda Limnontakul, a disabled businessman, is creating an inclusive business environment for people with disabilities to perform mainstream jobs as competitive equals. Through effective professional training programs and innovative uses of ICT tools, he enables people with various disabilities to perform non-traditional jobs with dignity while bringing substantial profits to themselves and business owners. Preeda’s work is enabling both employers and people with disabilities to recognize their full potential.
The New Idea
In Thailand, where most people with disabilities are largely excluded from formal employment, Preeda is establishing an inclusive business environment to integrate people with disabilities into the mainstream workforce as competitive equals. Using innovative ICT tools that are both user-friendly for people with disabilities and profit-generating for employers, Preeda is building their professional competitiveness in technology-related fields of work, resulting in widened professional opportunities for people with disabilities. By building his training system around existing laws, Preeda is leveraging existing government funds and resources to benefit both people with disabilities and employers. Instead of isolating people with disabilities in separate employment programs, Preeda is setting up job training centers at leading universities and thus socially integrating them into a mainstream environment, while influencing the universities’ practices toward people with disabilities. Through Preeda’s work, people with disabilities are recognized for their potential to contribute fully and equally to the workforce, bringing mutual profit and pride to people with disabilities and their employers.
According to the National Office for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, there are nearly 1.9 million people with disabilities in Thailand, constituting approximately 2.9 per cent of the population. The 2009 Survey by the National Statistics Office reveals that 65 per cent of persons with disabilities over the age of 15 were unemployed. Among those employed, a small percentage worked in professional occupations, while a majority worked in agriculture and fisheries.
To address this issue of unemployment, the government has adopted the 2007 Persons with Disabilities’ Quality of Life Promotion Act. Since 2010, both public and private organizations are mandated to hire persons with disabilities to any position in a ratio of 1 disabled person to every 100 regular employees instead of the previous ratio of 1:200. Tax exemption is granted as an incentive to private companies which hire more than 60 per cent of persons with disabilities. In case of failure to comply with the law, an employer is required to pay an annual contribution to the Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons Fund for an amount equal to the minimum wage for a quota of disabled workers. The Fund provides grants for skills training projects and entrepreneurship loans with no interest to assist people with disabilities in forming self-employment groups to do business in the community.
Unfortunately, a majority of people with disabilities are unaware of their rights and have not benefitted from these progressive laws. One reason is that people with disabilities lack critical skills required for the jobs in most companies, as only 39 per cent of people with disabilities have completed higher education, leading most companies to prefer pay the fine or the bribe, to get by. With the large amount of fund available, the Act has been abused by some public officers and organizations for people with disabilities. For example, identity cards of people with disabilities have been sold at a price lower than a minimum wage to claim for the compensation/funds provided by the Act, while the owners of the cards receive only a little amount and remain unemployed at home. Moreover, some officers receive commission fees from approving the capacity building projects which may not be truly useful for people with disabilities, without providing applicable or tangible skills that can be applied to the mainstream workforce. As these intended benefits fail to reach most people with disabilities, they are not integrated into the workforce and thus remain in the shadow of social exclusion.
Recognizing that most people with disabilities who are unemployed lack of the skills set demanded by most companies, Preeda founded a social enterprise called PWD Outsource Management in 2006 to bridge this gap. Unlike other conventional training programs, Preeda uses software designed specifically for people with disabilities as a tool to train and build their competitiveness. In PWD’s first pilot project, Preeda designed telemarketing software customized for callers with various physical disabilities. Within 15 days of training, the 30 trainees transformed into a significant taskforce in the company, making 1.5 million baht in profit, with a success rate six times higher than average callers. Not only did the success of this pilot project give Preeda public recognition, it served as a model to use this new Act to effectively employ people with disabilities in mainstream businesses. PWD has been recognized as Thailand’s first job placement of its kind: it has successfully created a win-win strategy to help private companies fulfil the disability employment requirement by supplying skilled disabled workers, while effectively building capacity of people with disabilities to truly become competitive equals.
As the government increased the ratio of hiring people with disabilities to 100:1, Preeda has identified a niche market for persons with disabilities in the industrial sector. To pursue the goal of filling 33,000 vacant positions, he registered the Wheel Chair Association in 2013 to support larger scale collaboration with employers and universities. In a working approach similar to that of PWD, the Will Share Association identifies common interest of involved parties and mobilizes funds under existing legal frameworks. Will Share Association is currently piloting collaborations with 3 universities in Bangkok and 7 companies in industrial estates, all of which are funded by the Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons Fund. While IT remains a key tool of operation, the content of training programs for both employers and people with disabilities are designed by the universities. Unlike most training programs that tend to create ghettos for people with disabilities, Preeda is integrating them by strategically setting up his programs inside highly respected universities. The presence of people with disabilities and sharing of spaces is bringing greater public awareness regarding people with disabilities, triggering both groups to learn to coexist as a community and influencing universities’ policies toward people with disabilities.The success of these pilot projects has earned Preeda’s training approach recognition from the government, enabling him to spread to 5 universities and establish job matching programs with industrial estates. Within 5 years, Preeda plans to fill at least 15,000 positions in the private sector and spread his training program to other ASEAN countries.
With his vision and creativity, Preeda is widening professional options for people with disabilities, particularly for those with low level of education. Through well-publicized pilot projects, Preeda is increasing the demand for disabled workers especially in the IT sector. By influencing the attitude and hiring practice of the employers, Preeda is establishing a more inclusive environment for people with disabilities. Workshops such as “Disability Employment Clinic” have been host to train employers and improve their understanding of people with disabilities. Preeda believes that once businesses recognize the capacity and profitability of employing people with disabilities, not only more jobs will be created there will be indirect spill-over effects to other sectors.
Growing self-confidence among people with disabilities leads to their greater participation in the society, as evidenced by during the emergencies such as the 2011 major flood in Bangkok. Led by Preeda, a group of people with disabilities with IT skills played a significant role in monitoring the online platform and matching the volunteers with the needs in the affected areas. Public perception toward people with disabilities has changed from being “pitiful and unfortunate” group to ones that are competent and professional.
To influence the government’s investment of resources toward greater inclusion of people with disabilities, Preeda is developing a mapping software that enables the identification of dense clusters of people with disabilities. This tool will be used to determine areas of priority for investment of resources, such as priority routes for handicap-accessible public buses, which are currently not available in Thailand. People with disabilities and potential employers can also use the online database as a job matching service. Preeda envisions that this tool will increase the presence and participation of people with disabilities in society. This mapping software is currently in development with an estimated launch date in 2016.
Born and raised in Bangkok, Preeda grew up in a family of traders. He developed business skills since young age by helping in the family shop. Instead of asking his parents to buy toys like other children, Preeda would learn to make toys himself. These skills followed him into adulthood. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree from King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi, Preeda worked in a private company as a product specialist. Already at this first job, Preeda redesigned the calibration system for weighing equipment. His method was well-received by many companies in the engineering industry, and saved millions of baht in maintenance and repair costs. At 29, Preeda was in a car accident that had turned him into as a severely disabled person with complete Spinal Cord Injury. Despite his calibre and professional capacity, he was forced to resign from the job due to the company’s regulation against hiring a person with severe disabilities. However, Preeda did not let the accident derail his life. Instead, he used his recovery time at the hospital to launch his first independent business idea and became a millionaire. Preeda gained self-confidence despite his physical disability and became committed to create opportunities for other people with disabilities to enter the workforce. Notwithstanding his physical limitations, Preeda has become a self-taught expert in information technology. An entrepreneur at heart, he has combined this new skill with existing knowledge and background in the private sector to develop several IT projects ranging from socially-oriented businesses and volunteer work. Preeda also serves on several government committees at the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology and the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.