Blind rights activist: 'In the UK, 66% of visually impaired are unemployed'

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There are huge variations in employment conditions for visually impaired Europeans, but those countries offering more modern solutions do not always provide the best chances, says Fred Reid.

A former lecturer at the University of Warwick, England, Fred Reid went blind at the age of 14 and has since then spoken up for the rights of blind people. He has served as president of the UK National Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted and as a trustee of the Royal National Institute of the Blind . In 1970 he helped to form the Association of Blind and Partially Sighted Teachers and Students and edited its Bulletin for several years. He spoke to EurActiv’s Jeremy Fleming.

What is the nature of the research you have been conducting into the employment of blind and visually impaired in Europe?

I am the joint author of a series of reports – called 'The Hidden Majority' – and we’ve covered Sweden, Germany, Romania, the Netherlands, Poland and Austria, and we’re now finishing France. Austria and France will be published this year. The reports have included statistics, gathered where these are available and report on the employment situation in those countries.

Who is supporting these reports?

It is an EU-funded project administered by the European Blind Union and I have worked on it together with the RNIB’s head of evidence, Philippa Simkiss. We have done it by spending three days or so in each country interviewing policymakers, NGOs and where possible those blind people affected by policies in the country.

What are the general themes that emerge?

The rate of economic inactivity varies very widely. In Romania it is nearly 90% of the visually impaired, whereas in Sweden it is slightly under 60%.

There is also a huge variety in the type of employment delivered. In Spain 80% are involved in the selling of state lottery tickets. If you look at Italy there is a heavy dependence on so-called “reserved occupations” for blind people. This means that the visually impaired tend to be shepherded into jobs which are considered to be blind people’s jobs.

What kind of jobs are included amongst the “reserved occupations”?

The range is reasonably broad. It is not just telephony – though that remains one of the main jobs. There is some mainstream employment as well. The more common and modern approach is to skill up blind people and encourage them to join the main employment market. Sweden, Germany, the UK and Austria all have sophisticated support networks and they will provide a support officer where that is required, in those cases a sighted support worker is paid for by the state.

Presumably those support workers are more commonly provided in public sector work?

We do not have clear figures on the public/private mix, but speaking impressionistically, I would suspect that is true.

Are those countries where there is more reservation of specific jobs beginning to change?

There is a little evidence that Spain is beginning to change its approach, but they seem to take the view that it’s better to sell state lottery tickets than nothing at all, and they look with pity on the UK, where 66% of visually impaired are unemployed. They take the attitude: “Would you rather have nothing?”

Are there common themes in regions, such as Eastern Europe for example?

Poland is a very sharp contrast to Romania. The rate of inactivity is high in Poland but they are going systematically about changing that and they have a rights-based system of employment support. A mainstream market will develop and grow, we said.

Romania was very far behind, the head of the local blind association said that it is almost a third-world country.

Are there general recommendations in your reports?

The chief recommendation, the one that I keep pressing, is the need to develop state-funded support services impairment. Blindness has special problems: training, provision of support and specific treatments need to be funded.

When the state moved in the UK from 1945 onward, the opening up of mainstream employment meant that the opportunities expanded for everyone: there was a doubling of the percentage of visually impaired in employment between 1945 and 1970, and another doubling in the period following that.

You contrasted those states offering the visually impaired “reserved employment” with those offering more access to the mainstream labour markets, is one approach better?

You have to balance imponderables. The rate of inactivity in Italy is under 50%, whereas in the UK and Germany it’s about 66% from our statistics. The impression is that Italy has a lower rate and so does Spain, but they achieve this by concentrating their efforts on the reserved employment. I know that in the UK if you go back 30 years you would hear blind telephone operators complaining bitterly that that was their sole form of labour available.

In Sweden there is a high rate of employment, but only 13% of that group work full time, the rest are part time. There are disagreements about this situation. Some say the employers are under considerable statutory constraint not to dismiss a person who becomes blind, and that this leads to employers guiding the visually impaired to part-time work. Others disagree, and say that those workers would prefer to be part time. Modern employment conditions for blind people can be very difficult, and travel can be a huge strain. So part-time employment might be a rational solution in those circumstances and I do not know which of these two opposing views is true.

What are you going to do with the report?

Next year we will send a general afterthought on the report. We have already had high-level talks with DG Employment and Social Affairs. Unfortunately the principle of subsidiarity means there is little pressure they can directly bring to bear on member states.

How would you like to see your reports used?

So much needs to be done. The blind people’s organisations in the member states need to study these reports and to put pressure on their own governments. There are things that can be copied. In Sweden, for example, there is strong “retention legislation”. Under this  the employer must retain an employee losing his sight, or – where possible – offer similar employment. Such retention legislation does not exist in the UK, and I see no reason why it should not be introduced in other jurisdictions.

External links: 

EU official documents

Think tanks & Academia

International Organisations

The World Health Organization: Vision 2020: The Right to Sight

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