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Article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is one of the most detailed provisions of the Convention. It lays down the right of persons with disabilities to work on an equal basis with others, and includes the right to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities. The article lays down the principles that underpin the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 8 that calls for “full and productive employment and decent work for all”.
With the pandemic exacerbating an already challenging job market for persons with disabilities, it is a good time to reflect on how to ensure their equal and sustainable access to the labour market.
However, as existing numbers show, persons with disabilities continue to be significantly underrepresented in the labour market, including in OECD countries. The employment gap between persons with and without disabilities ranges from 10 to over 40 percentage points, depending on the country—and in some countries, the gap is even greater for women with disabilities. A forthcoming OECD report—Disability, Inclusion and Work: Mainstreaming in all Policies and Practices, launched on 11 October at 1600 (CET)—puts the employment gap for persons with disabilities across 32 OECD countries at 27 percentage points. Inclusive employment issues have been on the disability inclusion agenda for decades, and a study shows that it is one of the preferred areas for disability inclusive aid. With the pandemic exacerbating an already challenging job market for persons with disabilities, it is a good time to reflect on how to ensure equal and sustainable access of persons with disabilities to the labour market.
A recent paper by the International Disability Alliance on implementing Article 27 highlights that approaches to inclusive employment, so far, have been through a narrow lens of placing people into jobs, without securing the preconditions that are both essential and necessary for persons with disabilities to not only access jobs but also retain them. These preconditions include accessibility, provision of reasonable accommodation and transportation, among others. What is even more detrimental is that persons with disabilities have often been supported to access only a limited range of jobs based on prevailing stereotypes—usually low-wage and perceived low-skill roles—thereby perpetuating stigma and prejudice about what persons with disabilities can or cannot do. This is particularly the case for most marginalised groups, such as persons with intellectual disabilities. The paper also shows that the focus of inclusive employment interventions has predominantly been on the supply side of the labour market i.e. upskilling persons with disabilities and making them “employable”, whereas the focus on transformation of workplaces for inclusion has been much less.
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Another area highlighted in the report is the interrelatedness of the right to work with other provisions of the Convention, such as recognition of legal capacity, accessibility, equality and non-discrimination, education, and social protection. The paper has also shown that enabling laws and mechanisms are often not there, and when they do exist they are not implemented effectively. The lack of implementation can also be attributed to the fact that rights of persons with disabilities are often not included in mainstream human rights or labour laws. Rather, these are standalone disability specific legislations, which often means that mainstream schemes and programmes originating from the larger laws are not necessarily inclusive of disability. This is an issue also raised by the soon-to-be-released OECD report that calls for disability issues to be mainstreamed in all relevant institutions, including education, employment and social protection systems. It emphasises that a successful disability mainstreaming approach could also help others without disabilities.
It is time we use this opportunity to flip the script and change the story on the right to work for persons with disabilities.
The increasing shift to look at inclusive employment from a human rights and mainstreaming lens is a positive trend. It is also evident from the large number of commitments that governments, international NGOs and other stakeholders made on this theme at the Global Disability Summit. But for these commitments to become reality, we will need to transform how we approach inclusive employment. This means moving away from identifying jobs that persons with disabilities can or cannot do, and towards identifying and addressing their requirements to access employment on an equal basis with others. It is equally important to work with employers to help transform the labour market to be more inclusive of employees with disabilities. It also means that disability inclusive development programmes focusing on inclusive employment must actively and closely collaborate with organisations of persons with disabilities, especially those from underrepresented groups.
The pandemic has shown us that the labour market and workplaces can adapt to address a variety of barriers, which in this case were unprecedented. There is now an openness to doing things differently. It is time we use this opportunity to flip the script and change the story on the right to work for persons with disabilities.