SPECIAL REPORT/Unemployment rates amongst the visually impaired in Europe are highest in Romania, at 90%, and lowest in Sweden, where it dips below 60%, findings of an ongoing EU-backed research project show.

Stark contrasts between the rate of employment and structural differences in strategies in relation to the blind are revealed in the report - the Hidden Majority.

“The rate of economic inactivity varies very widely. There is also a huge variety in the type of employment delivered,” co-author Fred Reid, the former president of the UK’s National Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted, told EurActiv in an interview.

Reid and his colleague Philippa Simkiss – the head of evidence with the UK’s Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) – compiled the reports over the past two years, covering Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Sweden and the UK.

Spain, Italy use 'reserved occupations'

Final reports on Austria and France are being finalised and a conclusion will be sent to the European Commission – whose employment and social affairs department backed the research – next year.

The reports include statistics, summaries of the employment conditions in the relevant countries and recommendations for action.

One of the starkest contrasts was discovered between Spain, where employment for the blind is delivered through “reserved occupations”, and France, Germany and the United Kingdom, which attempt to integrate the blind into the mainstream workforce as much as possible.

“In Spain, 80% [of visually impaired in employment] are involved in the selling of state lottery tickets,” Reid said.

He said this was also true of Italy where “the visually impaired tend to be shepherded into jobs which are considered to be blind people’s jobs”.

“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,” Reid explained.

The Spanish take the view that the lottery offers employment, where countries such as the UK have higher unemployment rates for the blind.

“They take the attitude: ‘Would you rather have nothing?’” he explained.

Overall, the jobless rate in the eurozone is 11.4% and 10.5% in the EU-27, figures from the European statistics agency, Eurostat, show.

Few regional themes emerged

The Hidden Majority reports revealed that there are few regional generalisations to be drawn from the labour markets, with the situation in Romania and Poland offering contrasting pictures.

“The rate of inactivity is also 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,” Reid said.

But he claimed Romania was “very far behind”, and added that the head of the local blind association had told the researchers “that it is almost a third-world country”.

However, for every report, Reid said that the key recommendation was the need to develop state-funded support services.

Reid, who has been blind since childhood, said that he had conducted high-level talks with the Commission's employment department on the reports. “Unfortunately the principle of subsidiarity means there is little pressure they can directly bring to bear on member states,” he explained. In other words, Brussels has little say on the matter, which is in the hands of the member states.

Instead he is hoping that blind people’s organisations in the member states will study the findings and use these to put pressure on their governments.

Education is a problem in Denmark

“Around 30% of the blind and partially sighted between 18 and 65 years have some sort of connection with the job market and this counts for both the full-time employed and those who only work five hours per week,” said Thorkild Olesen, chairman of the Danish Blind Association.

Olesen earmarked declining education standards amongst Denmark’s visually impaired as a particular problem.

“Our level of education has fallen drastically the past 40 years. Today, 57% of the blind and partially sighted between 18 and 40 years only have primary education among our members. So there are some problems that have not been solved. This is very serious,” Olesen said.