Health brief: The barriers to disability inclusion in the workforce

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Setting up efficient strategies to create a more inclusive society is complicated by a lack of data, a recent publication has found, despite the fact that nearly 100 million people are disabled in the EU.

In Europe, 51% of people with disabilities have a job compared to 75% of people without disabilities, according to the European Commission.

However, while this figure gives an overall indication, “it is not totally reliable,” Véronique Bustreel, director of innovation, evaluation and strategy at Agefiph, an association of the integration fund for disabled people in France, told EURACTIV.

The main difficulty when we talk about employment and disability in Europe is accessing data, added Bustreel, who also contributed to the recent Agefiph publication ‘Europe: employment of people with disabilities’.

Since a common definition of disabled workers does not exist in EU countries, it can be challenging to have data and figures on the scale of the problem.

“Depending on the country in Europe, when we talk about people with disabilities we are not necessarily talking about the same people. They don’t have the same rules or the same standards,” she adds. 

The French state’s definition of disability, for example, is far narrower than the Dutch equivalent. In September 2021, France was called on by the UN to review its legislation on people with disabilities, which criticised its current policies as “paternalistic”.

Having a common definition and precise statistics on EU countries would make it possible to define effective strategies by “agreeing on what works best” and “giving adjustments” if necessary. 

Northern countries and Italy more inclusive 

Studies demonstrate that amongst European countries, the Nordic states top the list in terms of disability inclusivity in the labour force.

Sweden, Finland, and Norway – but also Italy – have relatively high rates of access to employment, which is explained in particular by “an ingrained culture of non-discrimination for all”, said Bustreel.  

In contrast, countries in Eastern Europe tend to harbour a ‘more paternalistic’ and ‘protective’ culture, which is less conducive to the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace. 

“But there are no good or bad pupils because we are not talking about the same disability situations, in the same cultural or economic context,” Brusteel cautioned.

Quota system

Two-thirds of European countries have adopted the quota system, which is a good level, according to Stefan Tromel, disability specialist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

This system obliges any employer with at least 20 employees to hire 6% of people with disabilities. 

However, problems arise when a person is hired solely to meet the quota. “We need to think about their professional development, their skills,” Tromel emphasised in an interview with EURACTIV. 

For him, a change of mentality is necessary. “This is the key to making a difference. The good news is that many companies have started to understand that,” he added.

Quotas or not, integration of people with disabilities remains difficult for small and medium-sized enterprises, which do not benefit from the same means as large ones. “We need to provide them with technical and financial assistance,” stressed Tromel.

Tromel highlighted that, of the disabled population, the pandemic has hit young people and women with disabilities the hardest, leaving many struggling to gain access to employment. The specialist underlined that it is EU countries’ responsibility to take care of these citizens. 

European Disability Strategy 

In March 2021, the Commission presented the Disability Rights Strategy 2021-2030, designed to ensure access to fundamental rights for people with disabilities and develop accessibility on the continent. 

“It is an ambitious and interesting strategy because it addresses key issues for people with disabilities, such as accessibility, which is one of the keys to promoting access to employment and developing European mobility,” Bustreel said. 

But the Commission’s strategy is limited by not being binding. “It is a way of setting a course. Now the member states and the institutions must take up this issue and show their willingness to promote the rights of people with disabilities together,” she added.

However, she also pointed out that acting solely with compulsory measures is not necessarily effective and that it is better to merge the two methods. 

While member states and the Commission are working towards a more inclusive labour market for people with disabilities, there are evidently many obstacles still to overcome.

As EU’s equality Commissioner Helena Dalli said at a conference organised by the French EU Presidency, “an inclusive labour market – offering opportunities to all and quality work – is our goal. Coordinated action at both national and European level will be essential to achieve these goals.”

By Clara Bauer

Subscribe to EURACTIV’s Health Brief, where you’ll find the latest roundup of news covering health from across Europe. The Health Brief is brought to you by EURACTIV’s Health Team Giedrė Peseckytė, Clara Bauer-Babef, Amalie Holmgaard Mersh, Gerardo Fortuna, and Natasha Foote.



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Refugees’ access to abortion. EU lawmakers condemned the use of rape as a war tactic in Ukraine and called on the EU to ensure women refugees can access contraception pills and abortion across the bloc, in a resolution adopted on Thursday (5 May).

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Upcoming events

11-12 May – Chemicals: better-protecting health and the environment – EU French presidency, Paris.

12 May – First hearing of the European Parliament’s special committee on the COVID-19 pandemic (COVI) with an exchange of view with EU’s health boss Stella Kyriakides

13 May – Towards a new normal: why boosting cardiovascular health is critical, virtual conference organised by EFPIA

17 May – Investigating the environmental dimensions of AMR

18 May – Maximise EHDS impact on better health data sharing 

20 May – Healthcare provision in times of armed conflict: what have we learned from the last European conflict in ex-Yugoslavia?

20 May – Transforming health systems for resilience: access, workforce and digital. 

24-25 May – EIT Health Summit in Stockholm, Sweden. 

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