The traditional approach to helping disabled people into work has had little success, and it is evident that something fundamental needs to be changed. For example, the official unemployment rates for disabled people are always at least twice that of their non-disabled peers—often higher. The numbers of disabled people not working often approach 70% (in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada). Disabled people are more likely than their non-disabled peers to live in poverty; for example, in the United Kingdom two-thirds of the 6.2 million disabled citizens have only state benefits as income.
These problems are compounded by the fact that rehabilitation services are often unable to meet employer demand for qualified applicants.
In many countries, disability is not generally defined as an equal opportunities or rights issue. It is thus difficult to encourage corporate best practice which positions disability firmly alongside race and gender as an equal opportunities or diversity priority. Proliferation of quotas or the complete absence of relevant legislation reinforces employer assumptions that disability is primarily a medical or charity issue.
Evidence of the frustrations created by inadequacies inherent in the present system can be seen in growing pressure from disabled people themselves for legislation based on civil rights and/or employment rights, such as exists in the United States, Australia, and, from 1996, in the United Kingdom. It was the failure of the rehabilitation system to meet the needs and expectations of enlightened employers which prompted the UK business community to establish the Employers Forum on Disability.
Employers’ attitudes unfortunately reflect those of the wider society—although this fact is often overlooked by rehabilitation practitioners. Employers share with many others widespread confusion regarding such issues as:
- What is a disability? Who is and who is not disabled?
- Where do I get advice and services to help me recruit and retain disabled people?
- How do I change my organization’s culture and working practices?
- What benefit will best practice on disability bring my business—and the economy in general?
The failure to meet the information and service needs of the employer community constitutes a major hurdle for disabled people wanting work, yet it is rarely addressed adequately by government policy makers or rehabilitation practitioners.
Deep-Rooted Myths that Disadvantage Disabled People in the Labour Market
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governments, indeed all those involved in the medical and employment rehabilitation of persons with disabilities, tend to share a set of deep-rooted, often unspoken assumptions which only further disadvantage the disabled individuals these organizations seek to help:
- “The employer is the problem—indeed, often the adversary.” It is employer attitudes which are often blamed for the failure of disabled people to find jobs, despite the evidence that numerous other factors may well have been highly significant.
- “The employer is not treated either as a client or a customer.” Rehabilitation services do not measure their success by the extent to which they make it easier for the employer to recruit and retain disabled employees. As a result, the unreasonable difficulties created by suppliers of rehabilitation services make it difficult for the well-intentioned and enlightened employer to justify the time, cost and effort required to effect change. The not-so-enlightened employer has his or her reluctance to effect change more than justified by the lack of cooperation from rehabilitation services..
- “Disabled people really cannot compete on merit.” Many service providers have low expectations of disabled people and their potential to work. They find it difficult to promote the “business case” to employers because they themselves doubt that employing people with disability brings genuine mutual benefit. Instead the tone and underlying ethos of their communication with employers stresses the moral and perhaps (occasional) legal obligation in a way which only further stigmatizes disabled people.
- “Disability is not a mainstream economic or business issue. It is best left in the hands of the experts, doctors, rehabilitation providers and charities.” The fact that disability is portrayed in the media and through fund-raising activities as a charity issue, and that disabled people are portrayed as the natural and passive recipients of charity, is a fundamental barrier to the employment of disabled people. It also creates tension in organizations that are trying to find jobs for people, while on the other hand using images which tug at the heartstrings.
The consequence of these assumptions is that:
- Employers and disabled people remain separated by a maze of well-meaning but often uncoordinated and fragmented services which only rarely define success in terms of employer satisfaction.
- Employers and disabled people alike remain excluded from real influence over policy development; only rarely is either party asked to evaluate services from its own perspective and to propose improvements.
We are beginning to see an international trend, typified by the development of “job coach” services, towards acknowledging that successful rehabilitation of disabled people depends upon the quality of service and support available to the employer.
The statement “Better services for employers equals better services for disabled people” must surely come to be much more widely accepted as economic pressures build on rehabilitation agencies everywhere in the light of governments’ retrenchment and restructuring. It is nonetheless very revealing that a recent report by Helios (1994), which summarizes the competencies required by vocational or rehabilitation specialists, fail to make any reference to the need for skills which relate to the employers as customer.
While there is a growing awareness of the need to work with employers as partners, our experience shows that it is difficult to develop and sustain a partnership until the rehabilitation practitioners first meet the needs of the employer as customer and begin to value that “employer as customer” relationship.
At various times and in various situations the system and services position the employer in one or more of the following roles—though only rarely is it articulated. Thus we have the employer as:
- the Problem—“you require enlightenment”
- the Target—“you need education, information, or consciousness raising”
- the Customer—“the employer is encouraged to use us in order to recruit and retain disabled employees”
- the Partner—the employer is encouraged to “enter into a long term, mutually beneficial relationship”.
And at any time during the relationship the employer may be called upon—indeed is typically called upon—to be a funder or philanthropist.
The key to successful practice lies in approaching the employer as “The Customer”. Systems which regard the employer as only “The Problem”, or “The Target”, find themselves in a self-perpetuating dysfunctional cycle.
Factors outside the Employer’s Control
Reliance on perceived employer negative attitudes as the key insight into why disabled people experience high unemployment rates, consistently reinforces the failure to address other highly significant issues which must also be tackled before real change can be brought about.
- In the United Kingdom, in a recent survey 80% of employers were not aware they had ever had a disabled applicant.
- Benefits and social welfare systems often create financial disincentives for disabled people moving into work.
- Transport and housing systems are notoriously inaccessible; people can look for work successfully only when basic housing, transport and subsistence needs have been met.
- In a recent UK survey, 59% of disabled job seekers were unskilled compared to 23% of their peers. Disabled people, in general, are simply not able to compete in the labour market unless their skill levels are competitive.
- Medical professionals frequently underestimate the extent to which a disabled person can perform in work and are often unable to advise on adaptations and adjustments which might make that person employable.
- Disabled people often find it difficult to obtain high quality career guidance and throughout their lives are subject to the lower expectations of teachers and advisers.
- Quotas and other inappropriate legislation actively undermine the message that disability is an equal opportunities issue.
A legislative system that creates an adversarial or litigious environment can further undermine the job prospects of disabled people because bringing a disabled person into the company could expose the employer to risk.
Rehabilitation practitioners often find it difficult to access expert training and accreditation and are themselves rarely funded to deliver relevant services and products to employers.
It is vital for service providers to understand that before the employer can effect organizational and cultural change, similar changes are required on the part of the rehabilitation provider. Providers approaching employers as customers need to recognize that actively listening to the employers will almost inevitably trigger the need to change the design and delivery of services.
For example, service providers will find themselves asked to make it easier for the employer to:
- find qualified applicants
- obtain high quality employer-oriented services and advice
- meet disabled people as applicants and colleagues
- understand not just the need for policy change but how to make such change come about
- promote attitude change across their organizations
- understand the business as well as the social case for employing disabled people
Attempts at significant social policy reforms related to disability are undermined by the failure to take into account the needs, expectations and legitimate requirements of the people who will largely determine success—that is, the employers. Thus, for example, the move to ensure that people currently in sheltered workshops obtain mainstream work frequently fails to acknowledge that it is only employers who are able to offer that employment. Success therefore is limited, not only because it is unnecessarily difficult for the employers to make opportunities available but also because of the missed added value resulting from active collaboration between employers and policy makers.
Potential for Employer Involvement
Employers can be encouraged to contribute in numerous ways to making a systematic shift from sheltered employment to supported or competitive employment. Employers can:
- advise on policy—that is, on what needs to be done which would make it easier for employers to offer work to disabled candidates.
- offer advice on the competencies required by disabled individ-uals if they are to be successful in obtaining work.
- advise on the competencies required by service providers if they are to meet employer expectations of quality provision.
- evaluate sheltered workshops and offer practical advice on how to manage a service that is most likely to enable people to move into mainstream work.
- offer work experience to rehabilitation practitioners, who thus gain an understanding of a particular industry or sector and are better able to prepare their disabled clients.
- offer on-the-job assessments and training to disabled individuals.
- offer mock interviews and be mentors to disabled job seekers.
- loan their own staff to work inside the system and/or its institutions.
- help to market rehabilitation agencies and promote policies, organizations and disabled job seekers to other employers.
- offer customized training whereby they become directly involved in helping disabled individuals to acquire specific job-related skills.
- participate on management boards of rehabilitation agencies or set themselves up in an informal advisory capacity to national policy makers or suppliers.
- lobby alongside rehabilitation providers and disabled people for better government policies and programmes.
- advise on the services and products they require in order to deliver best practice.
Employer as Customer
It is impossible for rehabilitation practitioners to build partnerships with employers without first acknowledging the need to deliver efficient services.
Services should emphasize the theme of mutual benefit. Those who do not passionately believe that their disabled clients have something of real benefit to contribute to the employer are unlikely to be able to influence the employer community.
Improving the quality of service to employers will quickly—and inevitably—improve services for disabled job-seekers. The following represents a useful audit for services wishing to improve the quality of service to the employer.
Does the service offer employers:
1. information and consultancy regarding:
- business benefits which result from employing disabled persons
- possible applicants
- access to the services and the nature of services offered
- models of policy and procedures proven successful by other employers
- legal obligations
2. recruitment services, including access to:
- suitable applicants
- job coaches
3. pre-screening of applicants as per employer expectations
4. professional job analysis and job modification services, able to advise on job restructuring and the use of technical aids and adaptations in the workplace, both for existing and potential employees
5. financial support programmes which are well marketed, appropriate to employer requirements, easy to access, efficiently delivered
6. information and practical help so that employers can make the worksite more physically accessible
7. training for employers and employees regarding the benefits of employing people with disabilities generally, and when specific individuals have been employed
8. work-experience services which provide the employer with relevant support
9. work habituation or employee-orientation services to include job coaches and job-sharing schemes
10. post–job offer support for employers to include advice on best practice in the management of absenteeism and presentation of work-related impairments
11. advice for employers on career development of disabled employees and on meeting the needs of underemployed disabled employees.
Practical Steps: Making it Easier for the Employer
Any system of services which aims to help disabled people into training and work will inevitably be more successful if the needs and expectations of the employer are adequately addressed. (Note: It is difficult to find a term which adequately encompasses all those agencies and organizations—governmental, NGOs, not for profit—which are involved in policy making and service delivery to disabled people seeking work. For the sake of brevity, the term service or service provider is used to encompass all those involved in this entire complex system.)
Close consultation over time with employers will in all likelihood produce recommendations similar to the following.
Codes of practice are needed which describe the high quality of service employers should receive from employment-related agencies. Such codes should, in consultation with employers, set standards which relate both to the efficiency of the existing services and to the nature of services offered—This code should be monitored via regular surveys of employer satisfaction.
Specific training and accreditation for rehabilitation practition-ers in how to meet the needs of employers is required and should be a high priority.
Services should recruit people who have direct experience of the world of industry and commerce and who are skilled in bridging the communication gap between the not-for-profit and profit-making sectors.
Services themselves should employ significantly more disabled people, thus minimizing the numbers of non-disabled intermediaries dealing with employers. They should ensure that disabled people in various capacities have a high profile in the employer community.
Services should minimize the fragmentation of education, marketing and campaigning activities. It is particularly counterproductive to create a milieu characterized by messages, posters and advertising which reinforces the medical model of disability and the stigma attached to particular impairments, rather than focusing on the employability of individuals and the need for employers to respond with appropriate policy and practice.
Services should collaborate to simplify access, to services and support, for both the employer and for the disabled person. Considerable attention should be given to analysing the client journey (with both employer and disabled person as client) in a way that minimizes assessments and moves the individual speedily, step by step, into employment. Services should build on mainstream business initiatives to ensure that disabled people are given priority.
Services should bring employers together routinely and ask their expert advice regarding what has to be done to make services and job candidates more successful.
In many countries, the services designed to help disabled people into work are complex, cumbersome and resistant to change, despite the evidence decade after decade that change is required.
A fresh approach to employers offers enormous potential to transform this situation significantly by radically altering the position of one key protagonist—the employer.
We see business and government engaged in a wide-ranging debate regarding the way in which relationships between stakeholders or social partners must inevitably change over the next 20 years. Thus employers launch the European Business against Social Exclusion Initiative in Europe, major companies join together to re-think their relationship with society in the UK in “Tomorrow’s Company”, and the Employers Forum on Disability becomes only one of various UK employer initiatives aimed at addressing issues of equality and diversity.
Employers have much to do if the issue of disability is to take its rightful place as a business and ethical imperative; the rehabilitation community in turn needs to take a fresh approach which redefines working relationships between all stakeholders in a way that makes it easier for employers to make equal opportunities a reality.