The EU must break down barriers to employment for young people with disabilities

An EESC hearing points to the need to increase the employment rate of persons with disabilities, especially young people. Despite legal efforts, data shows that many of them are still facing discrimination in the world of work due to stereotypes portraying them as unproductive.

The hearing was held on 8 April in a hybrid setting at the EESC and brought together leading actors in disability policy, including social partners and civil society organisations. Its main takeaway was that the new EU Strategy on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities clearly acknowledged the major problems faced by young people with disabilities when it comes to employment and education. The Strategy's capacity to genuinely address these concerns in practice, however, is in question and social partners have yet to see how ambitious and quantifiable these efforts will be.

Young people with disabilities face obstacles when they try to approach the employment market, and these obstacles exist both in the private sector and the public sector:  technological progress helps, we have growing levels of skills among people with disabilities, they are gaining access to universities and beyond, but there is still a high risk that they will not make it to the employment market, said Pietro Barbieri, President of the EESC Thematic Study Group on Disability rights.

Indeed, the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is disproportionately high compared to the general population, especially for women and young people. According to the most recent data available at EU level, people with disabilities are 24.4% less likely to be hired than those without disabilities in the EU. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have increased that inequality.

Daphne Nathalie Ahrendt, Senior Research Manager at Eurofound, presented the results of a Eurofound survey which shows the stark differences between young people with and without disabilities: 27% of respondents with disabilities were unemployed, against 12% of respondents without disabilities. 55% of them are also considered financially fragile, against 38% of their peers without disabilities. A high majority of respondents with disabilities are more likely to face depression, the feeling of being left out of society and loneliness.  They are also less likely to feel optimistic about the future. The latter figures tend to be noticeably lower when the respondents are employed.

According to Francesca Sbianchi from the European Disability Forum’s Youth Committee, one of the biggest obstacles relates to minimum income. Many of us face a higher cost of living and therefore depend on support services and disability allowances to live with dignity.

One of the main prerequisites for putting an end to some of this inequality is to allow people with disabilities to be able to keep their disability allowance when they start working, in order to give them time to become financially independent and to soften the additional cost of living they are facing. Digitalisation of the employment market could be part of the solution. However, Stefan Tromel from the International Labour Organisation pointed out that although the new forms of employment represent opportunities for including more people with disabilities, OECD data shows that there is also a digital skills gap between persons with and without disabilities. Moreover, remote working needs to remain a choice and not an obligation, especially for young people. In order to fill this gap and improve workplace accessibility, trade unions need to work together with social partners: the economic and social committees of every country could be a good platform to provide that space.

The specificities of disabilities like autism were also addressed. According to Christian Takow from Autism Europe, autistic people are facing other issues such as difficulties with social and communicational aspects of work, including job interviews, understanding instructions, managing time and interaction with colleagues.

People with disabilities face greater discrimination if they are young. With 2022 being the European Year of Youth, it is essential to gain a better understanding of the reality faced by this particular group. Finding a job is fundamental to ensure social inclusion and to build one’s own path: this includes the possibility of travelling abroad to study and work. Therefore, the European Union needs to take action to allow people with disabilities to seize this opportunity as easily as any other European citizen. In many countries, as soon as a person with a disability crosses a national border, their disabilities are not automatically recognised and they lose the support they received in their home country, without knowing whether they will receive assistance from the country they have moved to.

Anna Kwiatkiewicz-Mory from Business Europe stressed that social services should strive to offer more employment opportunities for young people with disabilities: Connection between services and education is absolutely crucial, and from this perspective we need to have targeted employment services for young people with disabilities. We need social services to first come into play, to prepare them to enter the employment market, she concluded.