Persons with disabilities remain invisible to employers and society

Persons with disabilities may have the right to full social integration, but they are still not given the opportunity

On 20 June, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a hearing which showcased the positive impact of employing persons with disabilities, but also warned that prejudice and victimisation were still among the most important factors in their persistent exclusion from society and labour markets.

The hearing Persons with disabilities as a human capital: their contribution to the economy and society brought together representatives from the EESC, the Commission and the European Disability Forum, as well as from two businesses which successfully employ persons with disabilities. It was organised by the EESC's Study Group on Disability Rights.

The speakers agreed that although much had been done to provide a supportive legal framework for employing persons with disabilities, the equality gap still persisted, with the latest statistics showing a 26 percentage point difference between the employment levels of persons with and without a disability. For women with disabilities, the employment rate was even lower: it stood at just 18% in 2015. The pay gap between persons with disabilities and those without was also noted.

There is plenty of evidence that the cost of living for persons with disabilities is higher and their wages are lower. They earn 11% less than their non-disabled peers, said Catherine Naughton of the European Disability Forum, adding that this also put these people at a greater risk of social exclusion and poverty.

Yet the evidence shows that persons with disabilities have high performance ratings and job retention rates as well as better attendance records than their non-disabled colleagues. But many employers still hesitate to recruit them, regardless of the fact that the cost of accommodating the workplace to their needs is often minimal or zero.

There is a whole string of fears and negative stereotypes which stick in the minds of decision-makers, of people who decide who to recruit. People's mindsets are the main problem, said Krzysztof Pater, head of the EESC's Labour Market Observatory.

The most important thing is to move away from this 'medical' perception of people with disabilities, from perceiving a person with a disability as someone who is sick and incapable of integrating into society. People should start to perceive persons with disabilities as people who can do many things if we just let them and if we support them in doing those things, stressed Elena Schubert of the Commission.

The perception of persons with disabilities as victims is also a reason why many remain "invisible" to employers, who in turn remain unaware of the skills and talents these people may have.

We have to remove this victimisation, to show that there is true potential. There are many employers who are willing to employ people with disabilities, but we just don't know where to find them. How do we give them this opportunity? asked Madi Sharma of the EESC.

Ms Schubert said that the Commission planned to launch an independent evaluation into the effectiveness of the EU's current Disability Strategy, which builds on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), joined by the EU in 2011.

The European Pillar of Social Rights also contains a principle which specifically addresses the inclusion of persons with disabilities into labour markets and society, and their right to lead a dignified life. Despite a strong legal framework relating to employment, the legal protection of persons with disabilities outside of employment is still not sufficient.

One of the main culprits for their poor integration into labour markets is their poor access to inclusive education and training. Education should be individually tailored to suit their specific needs, while at the same time being inclusive from an early age.

The two examples presented at the hearing demonstrated that when the focus shifts from limitations to competencies, much can be achieved.

The Spanish social business group ILUNION employs almost 35 000 people in 50 business areas. More than 40% of them have a disability.

The Belgian company Passwerk successfully employs engineers with an autism spectrum disorder by using their special skills for software testing. Its director, Dirk Rombaut, said that the company was making savings of some EUR 360 million per year and that the returns made the costs of hiring people with autism negligible.

Diversity is certainly an added value in the workplace. Companies like ours create hope for a huge number of people, maintained Mr Rombaut.