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Disability a hindrance also to the labour market

Disability a hindrance also to the labour market

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén, Helsinki

Despite all ambitious attempts at getting people with disabilities into the Finnish labour market the sad truth is that they are being discriminated against. Now the government is making new efforts to give them a better chance.

Finland’s unemployment statistics for people with disabilities does not make for happy reading. As the economic crisis comes knocking there follows an all too familiar pattern. Exposed groups in society are the first to get a taste of the rough climate. And when the economy bounces back, they are the last to benefit. 

Senior officer Sari Loijas at the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in Helsinki has for many years been working to help those who cannot compete on level terms get into the labour market. The new government has improved on their programme and is now working to find new solutions for more working groups. Her own ministry is joined in this work by trade unions, employers, disability organisations, the Social Insurance Institution of Finland and the Ministry of Employment and the Economy.

Loijas, who herself has poor eyesight and uses a guide dog, says there is nothing inherently wrong with the present legislation, but that problems arise when laws are interpreted and put into practice.

“The laws aren’t interpreted positively enough from a disabled person’s point of view.”

One example is the many people with permanent disabilities who in principle are entitled to continuing wage subsidies, yet it is still divided into periods and must be reapplied for.

Problematic terminology

Terminology is another problem. Just like many other countries, Finland is trying to find other words for disabilities and functional impairments because it is a label which easily can be discriminatory.

Functional impairment can be used to describe anything from nickel or dust allergies to paralysis. In other words, it comprises both environmental limits to people’s actions and physical disabilities.

“The terms label people and do not make it easier for people to enter the labour market,” says Loijas.

Senior advisor Patrik Kuusinen at the the Ministry of Employment and the Economy points out that ILO convention 159 says a disability does not mean a person’s working ability is reduced, but that injuries and handicaps reduce the chance of finding a job.

The idea is to remove the term disability from legislation on labour services by 2013.

Kuusinen says the ministry’s plan of action has three strands. The first looks at demand and which mechanisms or services will increase employers’ interest in  hiring staff. There is a need to find a different label than ‘part-time work’ for those who work slower than others.

The second strand looks at offers and services which improve the chances of partially able-bodied people to find work.

The third looks at how labour and social legislation can be made to work better in tandem.

Ideas put immediately into practice

The work with this programme of action differs from the normal way in which administrative reforms are made. Rather than presenting a white paper which later results in new legislation, the members will come up with ideas for improvements which can be put into practice immediately. 

“Measures can be implemented as soon as an idea is born. It is nice to think that the result will arrive gradually,” says Patrik Kuusinen.

Heikki Suopohja, managing director at the foundation S. and A. Bovelius which organises vocational training for people with disabilities, welcomes all new attempts at improving access to the labour market. He points out how Finnish society is dividing people into two groups - those who can work at full capacity and those who can’t. 

Just a few years ago it was common for people with disabilities to be forced into accepting a disability pension. This, he thinks, is a complete waste of resources. There should be room for solutions where people can get an education and take part in working life on terms which are defined by their own capacity rather than the accepted norm. 


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