Disabilities and Employment: Ambitious Strategies, but the Struggles Continue

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

Multiple studies and surveys arrive at the same conclusion: People with disabilities are less likely to participate in the labour force, experience higher rates of unemployment and lower rates of employment on the whole than people without disabilities. Additionally, they face lower rates of paid employment that provides financial security or social benefits. More disability-friendly policies are clearly needed to support them and promote their involvement in the labour market.

For many people with disabilities, finding and sustaining work is a constant challenge. It has been estimated that in the United States, only one in three (34.9%) individuals with disabilities are employed compared to 76% of their counterparts without disabilities. Similar employment gaps have been observed in other industrialised countries. For instance, the employment rate among working-age Canadians living with a disability is 49%, while it is 79% for those without a disability, and in the European Union, these figures are 47.3 and 66.9%, respectively. While the World Health Organisation shows that employment rates vary across countries, “the bottom line is that, all over the world, a person with a disability is less likely to be employed than a person without a disability, often much less so.”

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2006, establishes, in Article 27 (on work and employment), “the right of persons with disabilities to work, on an equal basis with others”.This means that they should enjoy the same access to employment opportunities, remuneration and labour rights as people without disabilities.

Similarly, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted by all United Nations Member States in December 2015, identifies people with disabilities as one of several groups of vulnerable people who must be empowered. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) contained in the 2030 Agenda make explicit reference to disability in a number of labour market-related targets and their associated indicators.

However, at European Union level, only 50 % of persons with disabilities are employed, compared to almost 75 % of persons without disabilities. The unemployment rate of persons with disabilities in the EU, aged 20- 64, is 17.1 % compared to 10.2 % of persons without disabilities,

Moreover, women with disabilities, young disabled persons and persons with high support needs are more likely to be discriminated against and excluded from the labour market. Unfortunately, disability is not a marginal phenomenon. According to data collected by Eurofound in its fourth European quality of life survey, 28 % of EU respondents reported living with a chronic (or a long-standing) physical or mental health problem, illness or disability that hampers them in their daily activities.

In token of its commitment to creating a ‘barrier-free Europe’, in 2010 the European Commission published its first European disability strategy 2010-2020, laying out an action plan to enable persons with disabilities to enjoy their rights in full and to participate in society and the economy on an equal footing with others. It draws on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and complements the Europe 2020 strategy and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.

In March 2021, the European Commission adopted the ‘Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030.

The Strategy aims to build on the results of the previous European Disability Strategy 2010-2020, which paved the way to a barrier-free Europe and to empower persons with disabilities so they can enjoy their rights and participate fully in society and economy. Despite the progress made in the past decade, persons with disabilities still face considerable barriers and have a higher risk of poverty and social exclusion. The objective of this Strategy is to progress towards ensuring that all persons with disabilities in Europe, regardless of their sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, age or sexual orientation:

  • enjoy their human rights
  • have equal opportunities, equal access to participate in society and economy
  • are able to decide where, how and with whom they live
  • move freely in the EU regardless of their support needs
  • and no longer experience discrimination

The new strategy contains an ambitious set of actions and initiatives in various domains and has numerous priorities, such as:

  • accessibility: being able to move and reside freely but also to participate in the democratic processes
  • having a decent quality of life: to live independently as it focuses notably on the de-institutionalisation process, social protection and non-discrimination at work;
  • equal participation: it aims to effectively protect persons with disabilities from any form of discrimination and violence, to ensure equal opportunities in and access to justice, education, culture, sport and tourism, but also equal access to all health services;
  • promoting the rights of persons with disabilities globally.

The way forward for the engagement, empowerment and inclusion of people with disabilities in the labour market is often on a tired and tenuous route. Will international institutions’ strategies and politicians’ pledges offer a panacea to their problems? More likely it will fall to civil society, while holding the authorities to account, to assist in the struggles of their disabled peers.

Thomas Mc Grath


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