Disabled Still Face Hurdles in Job Market; Internet Dissolves Some Barriers

Article excerpt


Special correspondent John Zarocostas interviewed Bob Ransom, a senior specialist in vocational rehabilitation and employability with the International Labor Organization (ILO), in Geneva on Friday. Saturday was the International Day of Disabled Persons.

Mr. Ransom, 60, a U.S. citizen, is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the American University in Washington. From 1978 to 1986, he was director of international programs at Goodwill Industries, a U.S. nonprofit organization that trains disabled people and others with special needs.

Question: Worldwide, rough-ly how many people are disabled and looking for employment?

Answer: The World Health Organization uses an estimate of 600 million with disabilities worldwide, or 10 percent of any population.

Obviously, the majority of the 600 million are in developing countries, such as China or India. Of those in developing countries, 80 percent to 90 percent of disabled persons of working age are unemployed, whereas in industrialized countries, the figure is between 50 percent and 70 percent.

Q: December 3 is the Day of Disabled Persons, created by the U.N. General Assembly to bring attention to the problem you mentioned, which is a lack of job opportunities for persons with disabilities.

A: As you can imagine, it's very difficult to collect accurate statistics on the number of persons with disabilities, because each country tends to use a different definition of what disability is.

We find the statistics vary from 4 to 5 percent of the population having a disability in developing countries, all the way up to 20 to 25 percent in industrialized countries. The reason is that in industrialized countries, governments ... count chronic illnesses like kidney failure, diabetes, et cetera, as disabilities. In developing countries, "the disabled" are limited to people who are blind, deaf or physically disabled.

That accounts for part of the reason. The other big problem, of course, is in the area of unseen disabilities, such as intellectual disability and mental illness. Mental illness is a health condition, but it often goes unrecorded. In industrialized countries, it's easier to count people with mental illness because often they are under treatment, but not so in developing countries.

Q: People with disabilities are also often discriminated against regarding salaries and wages. How prevalent is this?

A: Unfortunately, it's true. Anecdotal evidence that we have points to this, because disabled people are so eager to have a job that paying them less for the same work is one way employers can offer employment and save money.

Q: How do high percentages of unemployed disabled persons square with laws in many industrialized countries, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act adopted in 1990? Is the problem more with employers than with lawmakers?

A: It's a combination of factors. In the United States, one of the disincentives for getting a job is the fact that there is no universal health care. For disabled persons who are on Social Security disability benefits and rely on Medicare, if they become employed, they lose those benefits.

It's a real risk, because their employer may not provide medical coverage, or the coverage could be inadequate. Also, they could lose their job, and because of bureaucracy, it takes time to get back on the disability rolls.

Many disabled persons made the conscious decision that getting a job is too big a risk.

That said, there are other problems. There is still discrimination in the workplace. Employers are still uncomfortable about hiring a person with a disability. Of course, in many countries now - thanks to legislation - discrimination on the basis of disability is against the law.

In the United States, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, there have been lawsuits precisely because of discrimination. …