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Disabilities vs. the labour market

Disabilities vs. the labour market

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, Photo: Tim Garcha/Zefa/Corbis

Young people with disabilities and their access to the labour market will receive special focus when Sweden takes the helm at the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2008.

In the Nordic countries, 2-4 million people with varying degrees of disabilities have no work, and young people make up the majority of these. “A catastrophe which flies in the face of the image of progressive Nordic states”, is how Ivar Kristiansen, a member of the Norwegian Parliament, characterised the situation.

“It's important to be aware of these terrible figures. We're talking about millions of people with disabilities in the Nordic countries, and there are also large unknown figures”, Ivar Kristiansen said. He was addressing the Nordic seminar “The labour market for young people with disabilities”.

Mr Kristiansen has been chairman of the Nordic Council on Disability Policy since 2006.The council is a policy-shaping and advisory body for the entire Nordic Council of Ministers. Its aim is to raise important political questions on disability throughout the Council of Ministers' areas of co-operation.
It also aims to initiate policies and to be a source of competence.

The council has established five sector networks, one of which concentrates on labour market issues. The sector networks are made up of civil servants and representatives from disability organisations, and regularly organise conferences. This time the organiser was the network for labour market issues, in co-operation with Sweden's Ministry of Employment. Secretary General Inge Ovesen underlined the importance of easing the entry of young people with disabilities to the labour market. He argued the Nordic countries needed a pronounced policy to include people with some form of disability, that there was a need to emphasise how work is important in terms of integration, and that lack of manpower meant more people must be made able to participate. There was a lot that the Nordic countries could learn from each other, said Mr Ovesen.

“Our differences and similarities can create a fruitful co-operation”, he said.

A bleak picture

While the main focus at the Stockholm conference was the labour market for young people with disabilities, it used statistics incorporating all people with disabilities in the Nordic countries, and their relationship with the labour market. The statistics were provided by a commission of inquiry from the Norwegian Parliament. Ivar Kristiansen painted a bleak picture.

Despite strong economic growth across the Nordic region, the number of people with disabilities in work is falling in all Nordic countries. There are more disabled people in work in Sweden than in the neighbouring countries - but there too, the number is falling. It looks as if it's becoming increasingly difficult for people with disabilities to enter the labour market, despite pronounced political ambitions and anti-discriminatory legislation on an EU level and within the Nordic countries.

“There's no lack of printed aims, but the numbers show something is being done wrong. We need a joint fight”, Ivar Kristiansen said.

Disability is a general term that tends to be defined differently in different countries. This makes comparisons difficult. The study of the Nordic countries, referred to by Ivar Kristiansen, included both people with disabilities and those on long-term sick leave. The statistic shows they are many, and they find it hard to gain a permanent foothold on the labour market.

In Sweden, around 1 million people say they have some kind of disability, but that does not mean they are incapable of working. Some 62 per cent do work, but that's fewer than in the year 2000, and the number is lower than that for the general population. In Norway, around 15 per cent say  they're disabled - that's some 471,000 people. Of these, 44.3 per cent were in paid employment, compared to 77.7 per cent of the general population.

Denmark and Finland lack similar statistics, but there too the number of disabled people in work is considerably lower than for the rest of the population - and the number is falling.

Many feel bullied

Working life for people with disabilities is often characterised by part-time work, fewer jobs demanding special competence, more jobs within the public sector and a greater need for specially adapted work places. In Sweden, more than 20 per cent of those of reduced working capacity say they feel bullied, through lack of salary increases, no offers of training, or being passed over for managerial positions.

Ivar Kristiansen said it was important to alert politicians to the millions of people affected. One  problem is that people with disabilities end up being bundled in with all social outcasts, and end up getting very little attention at all. This must change, he said.


 The transition from education to working life is particularly difficult for young people with disabilities. There are various projects addressing this problem in all of the Nordic countries. Between 2004 and 2006, the Norwegian Ministry of Government Administration and Reform ran a project for trainees in central government, to help young people with higher education and a disability to find work. There's now an aim to have five per cent people with disabilities out of all new public appointments.

An audit in the spring of 2007 showed that 328 places of employment did now have experience of accepting and working with people with disabilities. 18 out of 329 people were trainees. Stockholm has its own labour exchange for young people with disabilities, which services 25 municipalities in Greater Stockholm. It approaches many people with disabilities before they leave school, and prepare the transition to working life taking into account the skills of each individual. Many of these young people struggle with dyslexia, and disabilities are a growing problem.

A detective's work

“Finding a job is detective's work. We become the young people's network”, says Åsa Grönlund from the Swedish labour exchange.

Nicoletta Zoannos is project coordinator for Sweden's 2-year EU project “Independent Living Institute”. She says they fight against institutionalised exclusion of young people with disabilities, by for instance organising work placements and trainee programmes in the Swedish public authority sector.
“The key question is how to get access to the labour market. Most people do it through a network, but many of the young people with disabilities don't have those contacts, so it becomes important to get a placement or a trainee contract”, Nicoletta Zoannos says.

She says they've chosen 300 of Sweden's 500 agencies and public organisations, using various methods to make them accept young people with disabilities.They approach top management or other key people within each agency or authority. A lot of the work they do centres on influencing attitudes and spreading knowledge - but it is also important to give support to those who accept the challenge.

“We see two trends. One is that the term diversity does not include people with disabilities. So when you talk about integration, you're talking about the ethnic kind. The other trend is that there is no money to finance work experience and trainee schemes for people with disabilities”, says Nicoletta Zoannos.

The labour market for young people with disabilities will receive special focus when Sweden takes the helm at the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2008, said Eva Uddén Sonnegård, secretary of state at the Swedish Ministry of Employment. The aim is to reduce the number of people missing out on working life.

“To be included into working life is to gain self confidence, to take control over your own life and to liberate yourself”, she said. 


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