EU study on inclusion of disabled people in the workplace: rather beneficial than just beneficent

A few weeks ago, the Directorate General for Internal Policies published the study „Reasonable Accommodation and Sheltered Workshops for People with Disabilities: Costs and Returns of Investments“. It investigates different policy measures across six EU countries, which aim at supporting the employment of people with disabilities. Results suggest that not only the business but also states experience beneficial bottom line effects from an improved integration of people with disabilities in the workplace – if policy measures are chosen carefully.

The study conducted by Jacqueline Mallender et al. examines the prevalence of four different policy measures in Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Spain, Sweden and the UK as well as their costs, effects and benefits (both in terms of quality of life and financial returns). The analysed policy measures include sheltered workshops, reasonable accommodations, alternative labour market policies, and Universal Design.

One initial, general observation is that the rate of unemployment for people with disabilities is nearly twice that of the general population in the EU (18.3% compared to 9.9%). This also implies a large amount of unused potential, which becomes more and more important in times of demographic change and a growing war for talent.

The authors distinguish between two definitional models of disability:

  1. Disability from the medical perspective, implying disability is a condition concerning primarily the (disabled) person
  2. Disability from a social perspective, implying it is the society who disables people by designing the world suiting only the majority

From a D&I perspective, the latter model is of particular importance as Diversity management focuses on people’s abilities and potentials, and Inclusion implies the creation of effective work environment for diverse individuals.

The researchers found two main types of sheltered workshops: On the one hand, traditional sheltered workshops that aim at permanently employing disabled people, whereas transitional sheltered workshops aim at providing support and developing skills needed to access regular employment. Mallender et al. observe a trend towards the second model, which they also describe to be more cost beneficial (if successful). However, only 3% of participants in transitional workshops manage to enter the general labour market. According to Diversity expert, Michael Stuber, rigid and persisting stereotypes are the main reasons for this: “Instead of focusing on a given disability it would be much more helpful to consider people’s capabilities”, he suggests. “People with a disability are a under-utilised source of talent and resource of ideas”, Stuber adds.

The report describes reasonable accommodation (RA) as a cost beneficial tool that provides a positive return on investment in terms of increased productivity and reduced absenteeism, which is profitable both for companies and for the state. Based on the social model of disability, reasonable accommodation aims at making adjustments for the purpose of disabled people’s access to the workplace on an equal footing with other employees.

Universal Design, introduced in 2004 on the EU-level as Public Procurement Directive (“Design for All”), takes up the idea of RA. It aims at designing and creating working environments taking into account the needs of disabled people rather than being suited only for the majority. Universal Design standards will gradually supplant the need for single RA measures and facilitate employment of people with disabilities.

The authors also analysed alternative labour market policies. They distinguish active and passive labour market policies (ALMP and PLMP). ALMPs try to actively support disabled people in getting into employment while PLMPs have an incentive structure (e.g. tax breaks or cash incentives). The report finds well-designed and managed ALMPs to be more likely to be cost beneficial than PLMPs.

The study is available here.