In recognition of International Day of Persons with Disabilities which was celebrated on December 3rd, EARN spoke with Barbara Murray, Senior Disability Specialist with the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland regarding disability employment, social policy, inclusion, and the impact of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). EARN: What is your opinion about the evolution of social policy and disability throughout the world? What has been achieved, and where do you believe are the greatest gaps in achievement? B. Murray: I think that over the past 40 to 50 years, we’ve seen quite a change in the way that social policy has dealt with persons with disabilities. Countries at a higher stage of economic development have moved from trying to provide a protected environment for people with disabilities to one where there is greater emphasis on enabling people to fulfill their potential in the mainstream labor force. You can see it in terms of education, training, and increasingly more in employment. We’ve also seen a number of new approaches developed in the area of employment that help people with disabilities move from a segregated setting to the open labor market. Supported employment, which was developed in the United States in the 1970s, has become popular in many countries around the world as a means for enabling people with high support needs to learn on the job with a job coach, and get work experience or even get a job under contract. Supported employment is not only good for people with disabilities, but it’s effective in educating employers about the skills and abilities of persons with disabilities. Quite often, attitudinal barriers or mistaken assumptions prevent employers from recruiting people with disabilities in the first place. But when supported employment placement can be negotiated, employers can actually see how the person can perform. These types of initiatives are not yet embedded in policy in most countries, so I think that this needs attention. Although more and more people with disabilities are getting opportunities in the open labor market, there is still a lot more to be done. The United States has been trying to create opportunities for people with disabilities for many years, so I think ratifying the CRPD and joining in this global effort would give a great boost to countries that haven’t yet ratified it, or are starting to implement it. There is also an achievement gap for people who acquire a disability later in life and ensuring that they can keep their jobs and return to work if they are able to do so. In many countries, people lose their jobs if they acquire a disability. There’s a lot to be done, but I think that education, training, access to employment opportunities, and employer attitudes are the four areas I would highlight as needing much more attention. EARN: From an international perspective, what impact has the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had on inclusion of this underrepresented group in society and the workplace? B. Murray: The main impact of the so far has been on laws and policies. Today, 138 countries have ratified the, about two-thirds of the U.N. member states. Many of these countries are looking at their laws and policies, and making efforts to put new structures in place. I think it’s too early to judge the impact the CRPD has had on the inclusion of people with disabilities in society and the workplace because many countries are at the early stages of introducing this new approach. The inclusive approach required by the CRPD is quite a new concept in many countries, but people are beginning to understand it. I think many people with disabilities will benefit quite soon from new opportunities. I don’t know if you can say that the CRPD has already had an impact on the participation rate of people with disabilities in employment, but I would say that it’s on a good trajectory to do so. Ask that question in about 15 years’ time! EARN: There are countries that established specific quotas for employing people with disabilities. What have been the successes and challenges in complying with these requirements? B. Murray: Quotas that have been introduced in countries emerging from wars have been quite successful when there has been consultation with employers and trade unions. You had buy-in from the employers, who are obliged to employ a specified percentage of people with disabilities, and quite clearly because they were fighting alongside the people who ended up acquiring a disability during the war and felt solidarity with them. Employers in countries like Germany, France, Spain, and Italy have been willing to implement the quotas. However, in other countries where the quotas have been introduced purely by governments as an affirmative action measure—without consulting the employers—you’re not seeing the same kind of success rates there. That whole consultation process and the buy-in by the key partners is missing. In some countries, employers who do not fulfill their obligations under the quota to employ people with disabilities are required to pay a levy or fine for each unfulfilled position. Some countries have significant amounts of money in these funds, reflecting the fact that many employers are not buying in, and are choosing to pay the fine rather than giving a person with a disability the chance to demonstrate his or her working capacity. I’d say the successes exist where there has been a lot of consultation and buy-in, and where the right kinds of supports are in place. Challenges exist where employers opt to pay the fine rather than give a job to a person with a disability. If there’s a huge amount of money in these funds, the quotas aren’t working as they should. There needs to be more education and increased awareness for employers to buy into the whole idea of employing people with disabilities. We have examples of companies that employ people with disabilities initially to obey the quota law, and then suddenly realize that it’s very good for business because people with disabilities can be at least as productive as people without disabilities, if not more so, and they have good retention rates and so on. You find employers learning as they try to implement the quota laws, so it’s a gradual process. I think when an employer realizes that he or she is not just obeying the law but actually doing something that’s good for business, that’s a success. EARN: What recommendation would you make to federal contractors in the U.S. who will have to implement new regulations pertaining to the employment of persons with disabilities in the spring of 2014? B. Murray: Federal contractors may or may not be aware of the benefits of employing persons with disabilities, so the first step is for human resources staff to develop an awareness raising campaign. One resource that can assist in this is the ILO’s Global Business and Disability Network, which is comprised of multinational companies and employer organizations that promote diversity in the workplace and have a lot of information and experience to exchange on the benefits of employing persons with disabilities. It’s imperative to set up a system so that people with disabilities are in jobs that match their abilities and interests, that reasonable accommodation support is provided, and that co-workers have the right kind of induction so that they’re not apprehensive. Supervisors need to be prepared if employees have questions or if they need support. I would recommend employers treat this as a potential and very beneficial project and prepare everyone involved in supervising and recruiting people with disabilities so all are aware of the business case for employing persons with disabilities. The key role of the ILO Global Business and Disability Network is to bring employers together, let them speak to each other and learn from each other without the intervention of government or researchers, and help them become more disability-confident. It has been very effective because employers listen to other employers. I would love to see federal contractors suddenly realizing that this 7% utilization goal will in fact end up benefiting them, not just in acquiring public contracts, but also in that they’ll discover that it’s good for their business. For more information and resources on hiring individuals with disabilities, visit www.askearn.org.