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Enabling the workforce

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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 1/2022 vom 15.12.2021


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Disability: shouldn?t be a handicap at work


Participation in the workforce by people with disabilities is improving thanks to more enlightened attitudes and changes in legislation. But the stark reality is that those with a disability are still more likely to be excluded from the workforce and to face lower rates of pay.

This flies in the face of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2006. The convention established the right of those with disabilities to work on an equal basis with others. Fifteen years on, there is still a long way to go.

Employers such as Citibank, IBM, SAP and Dell are some of the big names that have made a conscious effort to employ those with disabilities and accommodate their specific needs. This has involved measures such as improving physical access and introducing assistive technologies, including screen-reading software, speech ...

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... dictation, amplified handsets and optical scanners.

In 2019, the UK’s so-called Big Four professional services firms, Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC, all signed up to a disability inclusion campaign run by The Valuable 500, an organization set up to encourage 500 global business leaders and brands to commit to disability inclusion. This quota has since been reached. It now covers 64 sectors and businesses in 36 countries that have disability inclusion as part of their leadership strategy. Further Valuable 500 members include Allianz, Audi, BASF, Lidl, Philips, PRADA and Sage.

Disability first?

Getting support from big business is a positive trend. But one of the main issues still facing those with a disability is that most employers continue to see their disability first, not their skills or their potential contribution.

A UN convention in 2006 established the right of those with disabilities to work on an equal basis

Furthermore, while plenty of companies are loudly championing the diversity and inclusion (D&I) agenda, the focus is often on ticking boxes around gender and ethnicity. Only a very small proportion of firms have targeted recruitment aimed at those who are differently abled.

People with disabilities make up an estimated 15 per cent of the world’s population and their employment prospects vary considerably, depending on where they live. Also, many countries do not collect or publish the relevant statistics. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has disability-related labour-force figures for just 69 countries. There is little or no information available for low-income countries.

According to the ILO, “all high income countries with available data had a noticeable gap in unemployment rates between those disabled and those not. The biggest differences were found in Denmark, Portugal, Slovenia, Italy and Malta, which all showed gaps of 20 percentage points or more.” The smallest gap was in Norway (two percentage points), where the government has been particularly active in promoting positive attitudes towards disability and removing discriminatory barriers in the workplace.

Employment and accessibility

In the EU, roughly one person in six aged 15 or over lives with some form of disability. And since 2017, the European Pillar of Social Rights has actively championed the social inclusion of the 80 million people with disabilities within the Union.

The statistics show that just over 50 per cent have employment, however. This compares to an employment rate of almost 75 per cent for able-bodied individuals. The unemployment rate for those with disabilities between 20 and 64 is just over 17.1 per cent, and 10.2 per cent for those without.

Figures from the German Federal Statistics Office estimate the number of German people with a disability at 10.2 million. Just 30 per cent are integrated into the labour market. The main employment opportunities are in public administration and other services.

Accessibility remains a key issue. The German version of EURACTIV, a Brussels-based pan-European publication specializing in EU affairs, reports that only one in five German train stations are fully accessible. Also, Sozialhelden, an association that campaigns for social justice, says that only between 35 and 50 per cent of all towns and cities are fully or partially wheelchair-accessible.

The gender gap

In 2020, a document from the European Parliamentary Research Service showed that young people with disabilities, those requiring high levels of living support and women with disabilities are most likely to be discriminated against and excluded from the labour market. Women with disabilities have a higher unemployment rate than men, with marked gender gaps showing up in the statistics for Greece, Slovenia, Denmark, Iceland, Italy and Sweden. In Cyprus, the unemployment rate for women with disabilities is 46 per cent, or more than double the rate for men.

The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (adopted by all member states in 2015) identifies people with disabilities as a particular group that needs to be empowered. However, the ILO says that the lack of disaggregated data for vulnerable groups — including those with disabilities — makes this a considerable challenge, as effective action requires a precise understanding of target populations.

Not helping are the barriers faced in accessing education. This starts at an early age, making it less likely that those with a disability will finish primary education. In Germany, 27 per cent of those with disabilities aged between 30 and 44 did not have a vocational qualification in 2017. The figure for those without disabilities was 14 per cent.

Most disabilities are hidden and include mental illness and autism


There is a common misconception that disability is obvious. In fact, most disabilities are hidden and include chronic health conditions, mental illness and autism.

And while the unemployment rate for those with disabilities is generally high — and many people feel that they have to hide their disability from their employer — the problem is even more serious for adults with autism.

An estimated 80 per cent of those on the autism spectrum are jobless despite having remarkable talents and abilities. This is often because they do not perform well in conventional job interviews. Some organizations, however, such as the German-based multinational software corporation SAP, have long recognized their special skills and aptitudes.

SAP has been employing neurodiverse individuals for over a decade. Its decision to start came from an initiative in India, where a senior manager had a child on the autism spectrum. The Autism at Work programme was piloted in 2012 and later adopted throughout the organization. The programme aims to hire those on the spectrum because of what their different thought processes can add to the business. Also, neurodiverse people often have a natural affinity for science, technology, engineering and maths — all strengths SAP needs for its blue-sky thinking and to stay ahead of the competition.

José Velasco leads SAP’s Autism at Work initiative in North America. He believes the programme helps his organization to be more creative. “If everybody thinks the same way, we’re likely to miss opportunities to bring creative solutions to the market,” he says.

There are currently over 150 people with autism working in SAP across 13 countries in 23 different roles, including software development, customer support, HR and global data protection. The retention rate for employees who have joined the company through the programme is 94 per cent, and SAP’s commitment has inspired about 250 other organizations to ask for guidance on implementing similar programmes.

The UK’s disability strategy

In August 2021, the UK government announced a funding package for its National Disability Strategy worth over €1.9 billion. It’s a broad-ranging plan covering areas such as work, education, housing and transport. However, Dr Abigail Pearson, a lecturer in law at Keele University and a lifelong wheelchair user living with cerebral palsy, points out that little about the strategy is new. Indeed, many of its elements have been in the public domain for decades.

“Recent House of Commons briefing reports indicate that the employment gap for people with disabilities continues to widen. And although the pandemic was highlighted as a driver of this decline, it presented an opportunity to increase accessibility and inclusion in employment, as it has challenged traditional, ableist notions of the workspace,” Pearson told Business Spotlight. “Adjustments to working practices have had to be made for all, out of necessity and collective responsibility.”

Pearson adds that the return to offices once again highlights the impact of inaccessible infrastructure, such as transport. Also, the 2017 British Social Attitudes survey found that 32 per cent of respondents viewed people with disabilities as less productive than those without. “These factors demonstrate that a multilayered approach is needed to address accessibility in employment,” says Pearson.


Employers often assume that disability means difficulty and cost. Yet, research from AHEAD (the Irish Association for Higher Education Access & Disability) shows that in 60 per cent of cases, there is no additional cost involved in employing someone with a disability. What it takes is changes in mindset and the recruitment process.

If organizations are willing to spend money to accommodate employees with particular needs, however, the cost is often modest, when compared with the quality of the employees hired as a result. For example, the Dublin office of Enterprise car rental spent around €14,000 to integrate a braille reader into its reservations system technology to accommodate a visually impaired employee. What the company got in return was an enthusiastic young graduate, fluent in two languages.

“The Disability Inclusion Advantage” is a report produced jointly by Accenture, Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities. It makes a strong business case for disability diversity in the workplace and clearly shows that companies that employ and support employees with disabilities outperform their peers. Having a mixed-ability workforce also ensures that new products and services are truly inclusive.

The report points out that in the US alone, there are 15.1 million people of working age living with a disability. However, in the US (as elsewhere), companies have failed to make the most of this potential for three key reasons: a lack of understanding of the scope of the talent available, a poor understanding of the potential benefits and misconceptions about the cost versus the ROI of disability inclusion.

“Persons with disabilities have to be creative to adapt to the world around them,” the report says. “As such, they develop strengths such as problem-solving skills, agility, persistence, forethought and a willingness to experiment — all of which are essential for innovation.”