Prejudice keeps people with disabilities out of employment

A recent hearing at the EESC showcased many programmes and projects disproving myths that persons with disabilities are unable to work or too expensive to accommodate in the workplace

Flexible working arrangements, assistive technologies and letting go of a medical approach when recruiting persons with disabilities could vastly improve their employability and help them realise their full potential at work, revealed a public hearing held by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

The aim of the hearing on Employment of persons with disabilities: How can we change society's view was to bust the prevailing myths and prejudice surrounding employees with disabilities, which are among the most frequent reasons for the very low percentage of people with disabilities with jobs. Participants at the hearing concluded that people with disabilities should receive mandatory adequate and tailored support from employers in the workplace, and employers should in turn get more support from the state.

The hearing brought together EESC members and representatives of NGOs representing people with disabilities. Representatives of large companies such as Apple and Microsoft were also present.

Opening the hearing, EESC member Marie Zvolská stressed that access to employment and decent work was protected by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and Sustainable Development Goal 8 on decent work and economic growth of the 2030 Agenda.

Article 27 of the UNCRPD recognises the right of people with disabilities to work on an equal basis with others in an open market. All EU Member States and the EU itself have ratified this convention. However, some practices differ from one Member State to another.

Only 48% of men with disabilities are employed and the situation is even worse for women. We need to look at quotas and see if they are respected, said Ms Zvolská. People with disabilities make up 15% of the world population, but prejudices still exclude them from employment. This has led to a discriminatory wage gap and a consequent increase in poverty in their communities. In addition, they are forced into precarious work situations that leave them more vulnerable to exploitative arrangements and unsafe working conditions.

For people with disabilities, unemployment is twice as high as that of the average population and about 25% of disabled young people are without jobs.

During the hearing, the speakers were asked to discuss best practices to better integrate persons with disabilities into employment. Javier Güemes, from the Spanish National Organisation of the Blind (ONCE), stated that we need to start rethinking the structural abuse of persons with disabilities in the job market.

When a person with disabilities looks for employment, the first thing that the prospective employer asks for is an analysis of their physical condition, with little interest in their talents and capabilities. This strictly medical approach has to be excluded from future discussions on law and policies for promoting employment, Mr Güemes stressed.

Moreover, it is important to challenge the assumption that offering reasonable accommodation is necessarily a huge burden for employers. Indeed, even when assistive technology or adaptations to the workspace are needed, the state will support employers in covering these costs in the vast majority of EU countries.

We need to fight against these misconceptions preventing full integration, said Levko Butrij, from Transfer Multisort Elektronik, calling for more teambuilding exercises and training in the workplace to allow co-workers and employers to better understand the needs of people with disabilities.

One of the most effective tools to include persons with disabilities better in any workplace is simply offering flexibility to employees on the basis of their needs, explained Matthieu Chatelin, from the European Disability Forum.

Offering flexibility with regard to things like working hours, the opportunity to work remotely, and having meetings at certain times of the day to avoid rush-hour, are completely cost-free changes that can really facilitate a person in doing their job and which can be implemented throughout the European Union.

However, the flexibility to work remotely should not turn into an obligation for an employee with disabilities. If the only choice persons with disabilities have is to work remotely, it can lead to further seclusion and segregation. If the solution for workers with disabilities is to replace human contact by IT, we need to ask ourselves if we really are serious about human rights, concluded Mr Chatelin.   

Other solutions for removing barriers to employment can be found in assistive technologies. The panel called for more investment from the EU’s research budget in research and innovation.

Representatives from Apple and Microsoft stressed the importance of people with disabilities being represented in the workforce.

We need to make sure that our workforce is as diverse as the community we represent, said Elisa Molino from Apple, adding that her company was putting great emphasis on hiring persons with disabilities and thus ensuring that their products and services were accessible to everyone.

Andreea Calbeaza from Microsoft said accessibility was at the core of her company's mission. She said Microsoft was now building tools to help other companies make their workplace more accessible too. Making workplaces more diverse was also in line with the values of younger generations and future workers.

Accessibility starts with the culture in your workplace. Millennials want to work in places that reflect their values. How can you attract those top talents if your environment does not reflect those values? Ms Calbeaza said.

The participants stressed that, despite the European Directive on non-discrimination in the workplace being already in force, further work was needed to push for harmonised standards on what kind of support an employer should offer on the basis of the employee's needs. There should also be standards on the obligations of national and regional governments to assist employers in putting this in place.

Put persons with disabilities in the driving seat, urged François Carbonez, from Light of the World. This can be done not only on a large scale, through advocacy and awareness-raising, but also at an individual level. However, in order to start taking action, persons with disabilities need to know that their rights to this support are clearly stated in law.

Concluding the hearing, EESC member Krzysztof Pater said a change of social perceptions would be brought about step by step. Solutions are out there. It comes down to thinking outside the box, letting go of traditional working structures, and allowing some flexibility in line with a person's needs.