What strategies work for ensuring persons with disabilities get access to livelihood or employment opportunities?

Author: Tom Shakespeare, Professor of Disability Research, LSHTM.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to our discussion of interventions to remove barriers to employment of persons with disabilities.

It was very interesting to learn from Kamal Lamichhane how high the wage returns on investment in education for students with disabilities could be.  This makes sense to me.  Disabled persons cannot easily earn a living from manual work.  Therefore, education can open up white collar roles, where there is less or no disadvantage.

From Stefan Trommel at ILO, we heard of the work that this UN Agency has been doing with big employers, and how they were working to remove barriers to digital inclusion.  I think this is very important.  Traditionally, projects have taught disabled people to be cobblers or tailors. But with cheap clothes and plastic shoes, this may not be the best strategy for economic independence.  Far better to teach how to code, or enter data, or run a paperless office.

As Dan Mont added, we need to address questions of finding suitably qualified and keen applicants.  Some big firms want to hire disabled people and cannot find them.  We need to work both on demand side issues (removing barriers, supporting employers) but also the supply side (training persons with disabilities, supporting them to apply).  Sometimes, with online application forms, it is harder for people with visual impairments and others who face communication barriers even to apply.

I made the point that impairments are all different – think of intellectual impairments, mental health conditions, mobility impairments, sensory impairments – but it’s also true to say that settings are different.  We need a range of solutions to address different barriers.  But it’s not just about barriers in my view – it’s also about differing capacities of persons with disabilities.  In UK, there’s the statistic that one third of disabled people in work, and two thirds of disabled people out of work, are limited in the type or amount of work they can do.

Ishaque highlighted efforts to improve livelihood opportunities for people with intellectual disability in Bangladesh.  This idea was fairly new in their country, as it is in many low- and middle- income countries.  They highlighted the discrimination and prejudice directed at people with intellectual disabilities.  In my own country, UK, only about 7% of people with ID work, so we all have to make some changes here.

Jurgen pointed out that half of all global employment is in the informal sector, which also accounts for 90% of micro and small enterprises.  Often, people work at or close to home, technology is very basic and human-centred, and the whole family contribute as much as they can.  These are all good ways to include many older and younger persons with disabilities.

The direction of economic growth is towards formality.  However, formal economies, which rely on wage labour not self-employment, also risk excluding disabled people, with long travel to work, inaccessible workplaces, formal working hours, and discrimination.   The key is to grow employment opportunities without excluding disabled people – which is not a simple trick to pull off.

There are many different interventions to promote work – from anti-discrimination legislation to employment quotas to supported employment.   Sometimes, these interventions can have paradoxical effects: the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act was actually associated with a drop in employment of disabled people As Dan told us, it’s hard to get disabled people into employment, whatever you try.  From her systematic reviews for the Campbell Collaboration, Xanthe showed a lot of different interventions do help.  But solving the problem has not been achieved yet.

We need good data and research to show what the impacts of different interventions, for different groups of disabled people, in different settings actually are.  That’s why Campbell Collaboration, the work ICED are doing with the Star Plus scheme in Bangladesh, and our Disability Evidence Portal are so important.  We need to discard interventions which do not work – among them, in my opinion, is the quota scheme, which only works in certain very limited conditions.  We need to make up our minds about sheltered workshops, which are the traditional response in settings.  It feels wrong for disabled people to be effectively segregated, and certainly contrary to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but what if they are proper, well-paid jobs?  We also need to remember that while some people are born with their impairments, others develop disability in mid-life.  Return to work is as important as finding posts for young disabled people. Having a job – alongside having a partner and having a family – are key life goals for many persons with disabilities.  NGOs, DPOs, governments and UN Agencies all know and work on this issue.  This CIP forum brought up both obstacles and potential solutions.  Many experts and researchers contributed.   I hope the discussion has shown both how complicated the issue is, but also, how important it is to get it right.  I welcome the priority that has been given to the problem and look forward to us all working together to solve it.