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Employers, Employment

and People with Disabilities

What is the European Social Fund?

The European Social Fund (ESF) invests in people. Its purpose is to

improve the prospects of those who face the greatest obstacles in finding,

keeping or regaining work. In this way the ESF enables millions of people

throughout the European Union to play a fuller role in society and thus

improve their quality of life.

The ESF provides European Union funding on a major scale for programmes

which develop or regenerate people’s employability. This task centres on

providing citizens with the right work skills as well as developing their

social interaction skills, thereby improving their self-confidence and

adaptability in the job marketplace.

The ESF channels its support into strategic long-term programmes which

help regions across Europe, particularly those lagging behind, to upgrade

and modernise workforce skills and to stimulate entrepreneurial initiative.

This encourages domestic and foreign investment into the regions, helping

them to foster greater economic competitiveness and prosperity.

The ESF is the main tool through which the European Union translates its

employment policy aims into action. In the six years 1994-1999 the ESF,

which operates in all Member States, will have made available ECU 47

billion, accounting for almost ten per cent of the European Union’s total

budget. The ESF also helps unlock funding at national level, through the

use of a joint-funding principle which permits ESF support to be made

available only for active measures already being undertaken by Member

States to increase people’s employment prospects.

The ESF’s aims are both preventive and remedial. To help prevent future

long-term unemployment, the ESF focuses its support on programmes which

prepare young people better for working life, which help those in

employment adapt or develop their skills to meet the challenges of change

in the workplace, or which intervene early to help those losing their jobs

who may be at risk of long-term unemployment to regain work quickly. For

those who have reached the stage of long-term unemployment, the ESF

concentrates on supporting co-ordinated programmes which provide a

step-by-step path for people back into work. Underlying all the ESF’s work

is the principle of ensuring equal access to employment for men and women,

the disabled, and disadvantaged minorities at risk of social exclusion.

Programmes are planned by Member States together with the European

Commission and then implemented through a wide range of provider

organisations both in the public and the private sectors. These

organisations include national, regional and local authorities, educational

and training institutions, voluntary organisations, trade unions and works

councils, industry and professional associations, and individual

companies. The ESF helps fund a broad range of active schemes and

projects, which include vocational training; work experience and placement

schemes; training of teachers, trainers and public officials; employment

counselling and job search assistance; employment aids and childcare

facilities; schemes for developing or improving in-company training systems

and structures; and research projects which anticipate and help plan for

economies’ future workforce needs.

The ESF acts as a catalyst for new approaches to projects, harnessing and

bringing to bear the combined resources of all involved. It fosters

partnerships at many different levels and encourages the Europe-wide

transfer of knowledge, sharing of ideas and best practice, ensuring that

the most effective new solutions are incorporated into mainstream policies.


I am delighted to welcome this third edition of the new series of European Social Fund publications called Innovations. The first set of publications in this series was the result of the combined efforts of the European Commission and the Member States in identifying and illustrating the best practices from projects financed in the first round of the EMPLOYMENT and ADAPT Initiatives. It is intended that these should inspire promoters from the second round of projects who are now beginning their work, as well as promoters in various other programmes.

This publication focuses on the difficulties faced by people with disabilities when entering the open labour market. It is recognised that the role of employers is crucial and consequently a dialogue with employers on the various hurdles and how they can be overcome, is an essential process.
Although there have been important changes in European and national disability policies, employees with disabilities still face many challenges when dealing with the demands of the labour market. In endorsing the Employment Guidelines at the Special Jobs Summit in Luxembourg, the European Council made a commitment to focus on the problems that people with disabilities often encounter in working life. In addition, the European Council has accepted the idea of a fresh start for adults who have been unemployed up to a period of 12 months, and to promote preventive and employability measures to bring the long-term unemployed back into work. As people with disabilities very often feature among the long-term unemployed, it is hoped that this will lead the way to improving the employment situation of disabled people.

It is important to recognise that all citizens of the European Union have a contribution to make to society and that employment should be available to everyone. It is evident that some special measures are needed to support both the employer and the employee with a disability in order to achieve equal access into employment for this target group. Mainstream provision should be developed further to help people with disabilities on their pathway from training to employment.

I would like to extend my personal thanks to all the projects and Member States which participated in this joint effort and to congratulate the authorities in Ireland for their contribution to this publication. I hope that the publication will stimulate further dialogue between employers, employees and key actors in order to create better employment opportunities for people with disabilities and to develop new systems which will encourage employers to enter into a new social commitment towards this target group.
Pádraig FLYNN

European Commissioner with responsibility for Employment, Industrial Relations and Social Affairs

Horizon has played an important role in promoting innovative actions for the vocational advancement of persons with a disability. This action is complementary to the need to combat the unacceptably high levels of unemployment which currently exist amongst people with disabilities. To that end, I have been actively promoting the mainstreaming of employment measures for persons with a disability. I am happy to say that my Department is currently playing an important role in the development of structures which will facilitate the integration of policy responsibility for persons with a disability into mainstream training and employment policy.

The involvement of employers in job creation is well recognised in Ireland. Employers play a key role in the partnership arrangements which have provided a central plank in the economic and social advancement of this successful process. I am glad to see, therefore, that an Irish agency, NRB, has played an acknowledged lead role in the thematic work leading up to this publication. That so many projects, operating across the Member States, have contributed to the development of the work is a good example of transnational partnership at work and this, of course, is a key element of the Community Initiatives.

I hope that this publication provides the basis for further involvement of employers in the development of employment policy for people with disabilities throughout the European Union.

Mary Harney TD

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment



  • How will it affect my business?”

  • Who else employs people with disabilities?”

  • How could I provide a suitable job?“

  • Will it be possible to find someone who fills the requirements?“

  • How can I get an idea of the potential of the candidate?”

  • But how will co-workers react?”

  • Won’t practical and personal problems interfere?”

  • Can I discuss performance and behaviour if necessary?”

  • And what if it goes wrong?”

  • Is there any financial or other assistance available?”

  • Can we do business?”





The EMPLOYMENT Community Initiative operates until the end of 2000 and targets groups of people who face special difficulties in the labour market. It has four inter-related strands: NOW for equality of opportunities between women and men; HORIZON for people with disabilities; INTEGRA for socially excluded people; and YOUTHSTART for young people. A first call for project proposals was launched in 1995 and, as a result, 2380 EMPLOYMENT projects were selected throughout the European Union.

In December 1996, the European Commission and the Member States decided to capitalise on the experience of some of these EMPLOYMENT projects with a view to helping promoters who would be selected in the second call for project proposals in 1997, and to mainstream the best practices. Five themes were chosen, and a Work Group of between 12 and 20 projects was established on each of them. In each Group, one Member State agreed to lead and co-ordinate the joint work. The themes are:

  1. NOW: business creation by women in future growth sectors, led by Italy.

  2. HORIZON: the role of employers in providing employment for people with
    disabilities, led by Ireland.

  3. INTEGRA: specific routes to education, training and work for the most vulnerable groups, led by Sweden.

  4. YOUTHSTART: the comprehensive pathway approach, led by UK Great Britain.

  5. TRANSVERSAL: integrated local partnership approaches, led by UK Northern Ireland.

Ireland was the lead Member State for the second of these work groups and the National Rehabilitation Board, the National Support Structure for the EMPLOYMENT HORIZON in Ireland, organised and hosted meetings of the group, and produced working documents and the final report. A total of 17 projects drawn from all EU Member States took part in the group, and some employer and trade union representatives also participated. The projects and the members of the work group are listed at the end of this publication.

All Horizon projects work transnationally and develop their activities in partnership with projects from other Member States. This transnational dimension has contributed to the exploration of innovative solutions to problems facing people with disabilities and enables the projects to operate in the wider context of the European labour market.

The content of this publication is largely based on the experience of the projects. This means that it reflects some of the barriers encountered by people with disabilities in their search for employment and the solutions found by various training, guidance and mediation or social welfare agencies. This represents only one side of the equation and it is intended that this document should be used as a basis for future discussions with employers and trade unions during the second round of thematic work on the theme The Role of Employers vis-à-vis People with Disabilities. The discussions in the second round of thematic work will focus on what could or should be done to promote opportunities for disabled people in the open labour market so that employers can define for themselves the role they should play in providing employment for people with disabilities.

Recognition that employers are key actors in changing the situation led to a decision to continue the work on this theme. It was felt that unless employers entered into a dialogue about their real or perceived difficulties and became actively involved in providing or developing work experience opportunities or permanent jobs, there would be little chance that the situation of people with disabilities throughout the European Union would improve. It is hoped that this document might be a step towards the creation of such dialogue and involvement. Future work on this theme should also build on the experiences and discussions initiated during the conference “Pathways to Integration and Disabled Persons” which was organised by the Luxembourg authorities in co-operation with the Commission, in October 1997.

The labour market in the European Union has undergone remarkable changes in this decade and policies for the integration of people with disabilities into mainstream employment have also changed significantly in recent years. When the expectations for economic growth are positive there are possibilities for more flexible employment strategies, and employers can be more open to the idea of employing disabled employees. However, an analysis of the employment situation of people with disabilities shows that ‘welfare to work’ is a more complicated issue for people with disabilities than for other special target groups and much remains to be done. This was also reflected in the Commission’s report on Employment in Europe 19971.

  • It is estimated that there are approximately 40 million people with disabilities in the Union and of these 43% to 54% are of working age. This means that around 19 million people of working age have a disability.

  • Eurostat conducted a European Household Panel survey in 1994 and this analysis represents the first comprehensive source of statistics on the employment and income situation of people with disabilities across the Union. In this survey, participants of working age were asked if they were hampered in carrying out their daily activities by any chronic physical or mental problem. Almost a fifth of the respondents (covering 60,000 households) indicated that they were either severely hampered or hampered to some extent.

  • This research supports the fact that people with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be unemployed than non-disabled people, and are often found among the long-term unemployed.

  • The survey also reveals that unemployment rates are higher for disabled women than for disabled men, and that the employment rate of people with disabilities between 50 and 64 years of age is considerably lower than that of the younger age groups.

There is a lot of evidence that people with disabilities are still in a relatively weak position in the competition for jobs. The structural mismatch between the skills people have and the skills demanded by the labour market is one of the key problems of this target group. The challenge facing people with disabilities is compounded by the fact that training has formerly been concentrated in areas which are now rapidly vanishing. The disappearance of manual, routine and repetitive work and the decline in jobs in agriculture and traditional industries are having an impact on the employment of people with various types of disability. The above-mentioned survey confirms that some groups of people with disabilities, like people with learning difficulties, often work in manual and semi-skilled jobs. Similarly, training and employment for people with sensorial disabilities has mostly concentrated in what are now declining areas of employment.

The current shift from the manufacturing to the service sector, the demand for more highly skilled workers and the arrival of new technologies have serious implications for the employment opportunities of some groups of people with disabilities. All this emphasises the need for flexible working hours and the re-organisation both of the workplace and the content of work. This will present an extra challenge but also an opportunity for people with disabilities, to find and hold down a job. Developments in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) can offer people with disabilities the means to overcome barriers by using new opportunities to access the future labour market. For example, new technologies tele-working and computer-aided work provide more flexible working conditions which can provide new opportunities for people with disabilities who have the right skills.

People with disabilities represent a heterogeneous group of employees

There is a wide spectrum of disabilities ranging from physical or sensorial disabilities to learning difficulties and mental health problems. Definitions of disability vary in different Member States as well and this makes the comparison of national policies complicated. While different disabilities offer different possibilities for integration into work, they may also require tailor-made approaches to overcome specific hurdles. Often disability means a functional incapacity but sometimes a person’s disability does not affect their ability to perform a certain job. It is therefore important to assess carefully the requirements of a job and to compare them with the skills and capacity of the person with special needs. There are vast differences between the needs and circumstances of young people with disabilities trying to enter the labour market with little or no work experience and mature adults who have acquired a disability later in their careers, due to an accident or illness. Another important aspect to bear in mind is that women with disabilities often encounter a double disadvantage in the labour market.

Employers and social commitment

Organisations employing people with disabilities may be large or small, and they may operate in the public or private sector or in widely different economic sectors. Employers’ attitudes towards social commitment differ depending on their general strategies, as well as their experiences and resources. However, Total Quality and quality management are the guiding principles for many employers today. Total Quality is a new attitude to work where improvements, including social commitment towards the staff are given priority. Through respect and consideration for the individual, flexibility and latitude and an innovative interaction with employees and local authorities, employers can create a dignified position in society for groups at risk. This includes creating a working life for disabled citizens and for others who, for various reasons, also risk losing their place in the labour market.

A lot of employers realise that the costs of not employing people with disabilities are also high. Income maintenance for disabled people is now the third largest item of social protection expenditure in the European Union, after old-age pensions and health care, but ahead of unemployment benefits. The costs of this type of social protection have to be borne by society, which means by those who pay social contributions. Employers are the largest contributors, and this underlines why their social commitment is so important and why prevention of disability and disability management have become elements of a modern human resources policy.


Employers often have doubts when they are asked to consider employing someone with a disability. This publication shows how HORIZON projects have helped employers to realise the advantages of recruiting people with disabilities. Successful projects do this by dealing with their concerns. The eleven most frequently articulated concerns can all be answered:
How will it affect my business?”

Employers would be more enthusiastic about employing people with disabilities if they knew the truth of positive experience throughout Europe, and if, in many countries, they knew of the legislation which exists to protect them against possible loss of productivity.
Who else employs people with disabilities?”

Success stories have to go around. A positive experience in employing a person with disabilities heard directly from another employer can be a convincing argument. When this expands to a network, it is an even better way. Networks can either be formal, or informal, and can include close collaboration with the authorities.

How could I provide a suitable job?“

An employer’s first reaction might be that there were no jobs in the company which could be taken up by people with disabilities. Through job canvassing, employers can be assisted to identify opportunities.
Will it be possible to find someone who fills the requirements?“

An effective matching of the employer’s needs and the person’s abilities and qualifications is the key to success when someone with a disability is looking for work.
How can I get an idea of the potential of the candidate?”

In work experience placements, people with disabilities get a chance to demonstrate their capacities and to adapt to the job.
But how will co-workers react?”

Shop-floor objections are a big concern, but information and preparation can help and colleagues can also provide a lot of support.
Won’t practical and personal problems interfere?”

A person with disabilities can face many problems outside work: transport; housing; financial problems; mental health problems … but a good support service or person can assist in these.
Can I discuss performance and behaviour if necessary?”

Employers require quality in their work in order to be successful in the competitive market and for that reason they want to be sure that the employees’ performance can be assessed and discussed. This refers equally to all employees, regardless their possible disability.
And what if it goes wrong?”

Good support services are crucial and also have to continue after a job has been secured, in case problems arise.

Is there financial or other assistance available?”

In most of the Member States of the European Union, different kinds of legal incentives exist to promote the employment of people with disabilities. These vary from wage subsidies, to quota systems toor grants for the adaptation of the workplace.
Can we do business?”

Professionalism in approaching and dealing with the employer is an important factor.

You have to present yourself as representing a reliable, highly professional service.

People with disabilities have to be encouraged to think competitively and to sell/ and promote their skills. Employment should be seen as professa real, professional and economic occupation, which does not depend on ‘charity’.

HORIZON projects have found possible responses to each of these 11 concerns. These form the basis for separate sections in this publication, each of which is illustrated by practical examples of how projects have worked alongside employers to increase job opportunities for people with disabilities.

These projects have also demonstrated that a new expertise or a new job profile is emerging which is being referred to as mediation. The mediation function requires a well-developed understanding of the priorities of industry and commerce and knowledge of the potential of job seekers with disabilities. Because of the future relevance of this new role or service, a separate chapter explains the concept in more detail.

Another important message from HORIZON projects is that there is still a lot to be done to ensure that employers and the general public understand the contribution that people with disabilities can make in the workplace. So, a separate chapter is devoted to the topic of raising awareness and outlines some of the successes which projects have had in this respect.

How will it affect my business?”

One of the reasons why employers hesitate to offer a job to a person with disabilities can be a concern about the unknown. In a situation where an employer is unfamiliar with disability, let alone disabled employees, a lot of questions can arise. DWill it be necessary to make major adapt,ations to the workplace? Will co-workers accept a colleague with disabilities,? Can an employee with disabilities work in a “normal” working environment,‘normal’ working environment? .

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