Moving the dial on disability inclusion
Meet Maria Teresa Lago, a Diversity and Inclusion Specialist in New York, who shares how her speciality in Clinical Neuropsychology has allowed her to contribute to a more inclusive UNDP workforce.
I studied psychology and I specialized in Clinical Neuropsychology. I used to work in the medical context with people that had acquired or developmental disabilities. From there, I went to South India to work for an NGO on Community-Based Rehabilitation programmes that aimed at increasing the livelihoods and employability of young adults with intellectual disabilities. That experience gave me the opportunity to develop my project management skills and enhanced my profile for the work I do at UNDP. When I joined the Organization, the work on disability inclusion had been uneven across the teams. So I could bring field-based experience and technical knowledge into the strategy design. The starting point of this work was to conduct a survey to understand the baseline of where the Organization was at in terms of disability inclusion. I coordinated that work, and that’s how everything started.
An inclusive future at UNDP
Disability inclusion has moved a long way. When we started working on this topic, there was not a systematic approach across the UN System, and UNDP invested a lot in this area. This agenda has taken quite some attention during the last few years under the leadership of the Secretary General Antonio Guterres. He launched the UN Disability Inclusion Strategy (UNDIS), which has been a great tool to raise awareness across the system and push for commitment. UNDIS touches upon programmatic and operational work, so the inclusion of persons with disabilities takes place at all levels, from our work across the globe to our processes, offices and teams.
Gender parity has also been one of the areas where UNDP has made great progress in the last few years. The work that UNDP does on gender parity doesn’t focus only on numbers and representation at all levels, but also on culture and having an enabling work environment. Gender equality is women’s rights, but also equality among people of all genders. This vision of equality is something that would benefit us all, regardless of our gender.
Now, my portfolio has grown, and I have a better overview of the intersectionality among diverse elements. I think this is key because when we come to work, we show up with all our facets. Our race, disability, gender, nationality, ethnicity are not isolated identities of us as human beings. To make sure that inclusion really happens, we need to consider all of them and their intersectionality. So we are working on a number of concrete activities to ensure that people have opportunities across UNDP.
One of the projects I’m working on is the implementation of an action plan to advance gender equality in the workplace. This action plan is based on the analysis and the recommendations of the EDGE certification, which stands for ‘economic dividends for gender equality. In 2021, UNDP was awarded EDGE Move Certification — the second-highest certification level issued by EDGE. This is a great recognition of our work, but there is still a long way to go. We need to be ambitious and continue pushing forward to prevent backlashes and address the remaining challenges in our Organization.
Moments of impact
I feel proud when senior managers champion this agenda and highlight the need to advance equity and inclusion. Their public commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is instrumental for change to happen.
I can feel I’ve had a positive impact when someone with a disability is hired, and when I receive an email asking for advice because a candidate with a disability is being interviewed for a regular position. I think that’s when you see that things are moving in the right direction.
For someone that does not belong to an elite,
To reach out to someone that does not belong to an elite and say, “Hey, the UN is interested in your profile,” is quite something. I come from a small city in the south of Spain. The UN is something intangible that you see in the news. So this message that, regardless of your background, you can add value to the work of the UN is very powerful.
Working in this multicultural environment has been one of the highlights as well. It has been a life learning experience. It’s part of our nature as humans to have certain biases and stereotypes. Working in such a diverse context will make you reconsider these labels and prove to you that we all belong to the same human species.
A very good day for me here involves what I like to call ‘a blue-sky thinking moment’, when you feel that you can be as idealistic and creative as possible with your work. This can be really inspirational. This can happen, you know, in a meeting with colleagues, or just by yourself, but having the tools and the space and the environment to do that is important. At UNDP, I have the feeling that the work that I do has a real impact on people’s lives.