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Despite significant labour shortages in many sectors of the economy, labour markets across OECD countries do not give the same opportunities to everyone. In particular, people with disability—about 10-15% of the working-age population in most countries—face some of the greatest barriers to equal labour market participation. Governments across OECD countries have been aware of this for a long time, but despite the intention to improve the situation and significant reforms in many countries, the share of people with disability in employment remains stubbornly well below the share for those without. According to a forthcoming OECD report, this disability employment gap (based on population survey data using an internationally recognised definition of self-assessed disability) was 27 percentage points on average in 2019 across 32 OECD countries.
Twenty years ago, the OECD promoted a new disability policy paradigm...the emphasis was on how people with disability can contribute actively to society and the economy rather than focusing on what they cannot do.
One important cause of this employment gap is a persistent skills gap. Lower skills—and poorer chances to upgrade them in a constantly changing labour market—make it difficult for people with disability to find and keep a job. Low rates of employment translate into high rates of poverty: across OECD countries, about one-in-four people with disability live in low-income households compared to one-in-seven people without disability.
Twenty years ago, the OECD promoted a new disability policy paradigm that put the employability of people with disability on a par with providing them with adequate income support. The emphasis was thus on how people with disability can contribute actively to society and the economy rather than focusing on what they cannot do. This shift in mind set focused on early intervention and employment promotion targeted to the individual’s needs, active job search and training engagement in line with a person’s work capacity, as well as stronger responsibilities for employers and public authorities.
Disability issues must be a key concern for all relevant mainstream institutions, including education establishments, employment services and social protection systems.
While OECD countries have made considerable efforts to follow these recommendations, the necessary policy transformation remains incomplete and resources for creating equal opportunities continue to be insufficient. Countries continue to invest far too little in rehabilitation and employment-related measures for people with disability. The shift from a compensation approach to an empowerment approach—and from looking at people’s capacities rather than at their incapacities—has been slow and difficult in all countries.
Despite efforts to improve disability employment, people with disability often only receive help after a long period of fragile and interrupted employment experiences, as well as a long process of disability assessment to eventually qualify for special services and benefits. The OECD’s upcoming report, Disability, Inclusion and Work: Mainstreaming in all Policies and Practices, argues that this is the most important problem disability policy is facing: lots of time is lost as people with disability try to access special supports and until they are offered services by specialised institutions. Disability issues must also be a key concern for all relevant mainstream institutions, including education establishments, employment services and social protection systems. These institutions must ensure equal access to support for people with and without disability: only then is it possible to make much needed early intervention the norm rather than an exception. To make mainstreaming of disability happen, mainstream institutions for social and employment support must be “disability competent” and be held accountable for providing everyone with equal access.
Read more: The Right Support: Improving care leavers’ socioeconomic outcomes by Dorothy Adams, Social Policy Expert and Veerle Miranda, Senior Economist, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD
For adults with disability, early intervention must include tackling persistent skills gaps; a strong focus on sickness programmes; a fast return to work or new employment through the provision of effective vocational rehabilitation pathways; as well as strengthening the capacity of private and public employment services to identify and address health and disability-related barriers of jobseekers early. For young people with disability and first-time labour market entrants, early action must include inclusive education at all ages and effective education-to-work transition programmes closely linked with adequate social protection where necessary.
In building back better after the COVID‑19 pandemic, a key objective for many countries is to promote an inclusive recovery that leaves no one behind—including people with disability.
The mainstreaming of disability into all policy areas will also be important to ensure that people with disability do not miss out on the benefits of the technological transformation and the shift to a green economy. People with disability are more likely than people without disability to have jobs at high risk of automation and less amenable to teleworking. New technologies and telework offer considerable opportunities to improve working conditions (e.g. by removing the need to commute) but people with disability will not benefit automatically and equally without public investments in infrastructure and workplace accommodation. Consultation with people with disability in developing technologies and future work policies will be crucial to make the most of these new opportunities.
A successful disability mainstreaming approach could also help other people without disability who nevertheless face a range of employment barriers. Conversely, addressing employment barriers more generally for disadvantaged groups of the population will also help people with disability. In building back better after the COVID‑19 pandemic, a key objective for many countries is to promote an inclusive recovery that leaves no one behind—including people with disability. A rigorous disability policy paradigm in line with the UN Convention and based on a mainstreaming philosophy will be key to achieve this.