Bringing more people with disabilities into the labour market – an ETF priority for 2024
As countries around the world mark the United Nations’ International Day of Persons with Disability on December 3rd, the European Training Foundation is gearing up to give a greater focus in 2024 to promoting awareness, understanding and acceptance of people with disabilities in education, training and the labour market.
Piotr Stronkowski, a Human Capital Development Expert at the ETF, will be in charge of putting people with disabilities at the heart of the work it does across the range of policy areas.
“We would like to include disability in different policy areas that we implement,” Piotr says. “We would like it to be part of the horizontal policy across our working areas.
This could mean, for example, ensuring that partner countries involved in active labour market policy, or centres of vocational excellence, include consideration for people with disabilities in their work.
“First, we need to understand that access for people with disability to the labour market is similar in member states of the EU and partner countries: what we call the disability employment gap – the figure showing the difference between employment rate of those people that are able bodies , and those with disabilities – is around 20 percentage points in the EU,” Piotr said.
It is different in most ETF partner countries, with figures (where they exist) showing the gap in Serbia, for example, at 38%, and in North Macedonia at 34%.
The first key step to addressing the significantly lower role of people with disabilities in the labour market was to ensure that there was evidence-based data with which to work.
The ETF could, for example, work with partner countries to ensure that Labour Force Surveys included a question about disability, access to work, training and provision to support employers who hire people with disabilities.
Once reliable statistics are collected, it will be possible to begin tackling other issues – personal and structural – that mitigate against employing people with disabilities.
“Most people with disabilities don’t apply for jobs,” Piotr notes. “Many have low self-esteem and live on social benefits. It is not easy to reach out to them and encourage them to engage with local labour markets – they often distrust public institutions.”
That distrust is often structural, he says: policies on benefits and disability pensions often forbid work, or act to make people poorer if they do take up paid work, compared with staying on benefits.
There are also issues relating to education and skills: “On average those with disabilities have lower skills, and less access to the training system, so this needs to be worked on.”
Public employment services are rarely specific enough, and lack the sort of individualised support demanded by those presenting with a range of different disabilities – physical, mental, emotional or psychological.
“In some member states, we have specialists in hearing, seeing, motion disabilities, for example, but of course it is more expensive to support such systems,” Piotr notes.
People with disabilities also faces prejudice and stereotyping.
“Many employers and team members are afraid of working with people with disabilities; they don’t know how to behave in a daily situation when you have a person with a disability or how to approach them and talk about their disability.”
Practical issues – such as ensuring workplaces are accessible, are another barrier to greater inclusion of people with disabilities.
The ETF can work with partner countries to provide help and support to address all these issues, he stresses. Examples of good practice are not hard to find: Jordan is trying to implement a comprehensive system to address the labour market needs of people with disabilities; and in Kosovo engagement with NGOs (which enjoy more trust than public services among those with disabilities) is proving promising. European Commission is also working on Employment Disability Package, which will be a set of practical tools supporting Member States and partner countries in their efforts.
The benefits of improving access to the labour market for people with disabilities are many: “From the point of view of the individual, the benefit is not only to have a job that pays, but also to be part of society, to feel that they are contributing to society. And the economic benefits – at a time where we are facing ageing societies and have very serious shortages of labour – are also clear. Bringing people with disabilities into the labour market makes sense.”
Using people’s skills may be a little more expensive when employing a person with disabilities – they may require workplace adaptations or more frequent breaks – but the benefits outweigh the costs, he stresses.
“We need to understand they are all of us are unique - some people may have been disabled since childhood, or others had an accident, or fallen ill.
“People with disabilities have all levels of education and levels of ability. We have a huge diversity of job places and tasks – the main issue is how to match the person with the job place.”
And Piotr’s message for International Day of Persons with Disability?
“We need to make work accessible to all - think about people with disabilities as your assets not your costs.”