Removing Barriers to Progress for People with Disabilities

Posted on January 30, 2018 at 10:08 AM

Fergus Finlay
Fergus Finlay

Ahead of the annual Congress Disability Seminar, Fergus Finlay - chair of the Comprehensive Employment Strategy Implementation Group - looks at how we can make decent work a reality for people with disabilities

Just over two years ago the Government announced a comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities. It was very far-reaching and extensive and was designed to be implemented over a period of years. Ever since then, I have been chairing an implementation group, which consists of representatives of government departments, the disability sector, and the world of work – especially the Irish Congress of Trade unions.

We all know that people with disabilities face far more challenges than most in getting a job, building a career, finding fulfilling and rewarding work to do. The figures are stark. According to the latest census, there were 176,445 people with a disability in the labour force, giving a labour force participation rate of 30.2% compared with 61.4% for the population overall. The unemployment rate amongst persons with a disability was 26.3%, more than double the 12.9% rate for the population as a whole.

As we know, Ireland is moving toward full employment. I’ve told the group I work with that against a background of rising employment and a growing economy, the figures I’ve quoted above demonstrate ongoing inequality and discrimination. We will fail to address that discrimination if we continue to fail to get education right, to set services right, to get the infrastructure around employment right, and to get attitudes right. If people with disabilities continue to fail to benefit from a recovering and growing economy, and from a demand among employers for loyal, committed and productive workers, it will be our failure, not theirs.

But there’s a lot of really good work going on. The government has agreed to double the target of people with a disability in the public service from 3% to 6% over time, and steps are being taken to make recruitment processes easier and more disability friendly. The Department of Social Protection is introducing significant changes, through its Make Work Pay report, to make it easier for a person with a disability to take up a job without threatening the access to services that he or she needs.

A new model for the allocation of additional teaching supports for pupils with special educational needs was introduced for all schools, in September 2017. The model is based on the profiled special educational need of each school and is aimed at providing better outcomes for children with special educational needs and addressing potential unfairness in the previous model.

In relation to further education and training a significant development has been the decision to establish a new social inclusion unit in SOLAS in order to support the participation of all, including people with disabilities, in accessing opportunities.

All over the country, people with disabilities report that one of the main barriers to employment is accessible and available transport. In this year’s Budget there was a multi-annual allocation of around €28m to improve accessibility. This funding is a trebling of the previous allocation for accessibility under the Capital Plan. This will facilitate the continued roll-out of the programmes to install accessible bus stops, the upgrading of train stations to make them accessible to wheelchair users and the grant scheme to support the introduction of more wheelchair accessible vehicles into the taxi fleet.

So in a whole variety of ways, a lot is happening. And yet not enough is changing. Why?

Part of the answer may be in a survey of attitudes conducted by the National Disability Authority this year. When asked about their level of comfort working with people with disabilities, respondents reported highest comfort levels for working with people with physical disabilities (8.9 out of 10), and the lowest comfort levels for working with people with mental health difficulties (8.2 out of 10). But only 18% of respondents believed that people with disabilities receive equal opportunities in terms of employment. 

The NDA also operates a help line for employers, to enable them to access support and advice around the issue of employing people with disabilities. The help line gets a lot of calls – but the vast majority of them come from employers who have encountered disability among their existing workforce. There is no sense whatever that employers in general want to take a lead – or indeed take any risk at all – when it comes to helping people with disabilities break down the barriers.

That’s why, in the report I will be publishing on the second year of our work, I will be suggesting to the Minister for Disabilities that he would consider calling an informal “summit” of employer and trade union bodies to start putting the kind of awareness campaign that is necessary in place, and to call out champions from the world of work to end the ongoing discrimination in this area.

I would really welcome the support of the wider trade union movement for an initiative like this. If we don’t work to actively break down barriers, we are implicitly condoning discrimination. People with disabilities have just as much right as any other citizen to participate in the world of work. The things that stop them – including prejudice and wrong perceptions – are barriers that we all helped to erect. They are the kind of barriers that the trade union movement exists to tear down. 

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