Opinion : For a European social model for handicapped workers

Opinion : For a European social model for handicapped workers

Nov 26, 2021
Ce lundi s’est terminée la 25ème édition de la Semaine Européenne pour l’Emploi des Personnes Handicapées (SEEPH). Avec plus de 80 millions ...
Volt France - Tribune - Les travailleurs handicapés

For a European social model promoting freedom of career orientation, mobility and enterprise for all handicapped workers in Europe

(by Ronan Kerleo - Member of Volt France)

The 25th edition of the European Week for the Employment of People with Disabilities (EWPD) ended on Monday. With more than 80 million people with disabilities in the European Union, including 16% of the working population, and with unemployment rates far higher than the rest of the population and very high income inequalities everywhere, this is a major challenge for the whole of Europe.

However, despite its European claim, the EWPD remains a very Franco-French event and it is regrettable that there is no greater will to give it a more significant European dimension.

Acting more strongly against discrimination and for the respect of the rights of people with disabilities

If the EWPD does not manage to find its European dimension, it is also because its organisation is largely based on the French social model of disability care, which is different from that found in many other countries.

Thus, for example, the recognition in France of a disabled worker status is necessarily accompanied by a professional orientation, which indicates whether the person can work in the ordinary work environment or whether he or she should move towards the so-called protected sector, i.e. in an ESAT (Etablissement ou Service d'Aide par le Travail).

Although in theory this orientation is not absolutely imperative, it nevertheless strongly constrains the possibilities of choice and support for people with this last orientation. The model of these establishments, based on the institutional medical-social system, is now being strongly questioned by the publication of the report on France by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the final version of which was released on 14 September. This report, which is damning for the French institutional system, calls for the progressive closure of all institutions for people with disabilities. For Catalina Devandas Aguilar, the UN Special Rapporteur in charge of monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, "life in institutions generates systematic segregation" and "institutionalisation prevents people from fully exercising their rights". Thus, in the case of workers in ESATs, not only are they generally kept very largely separate from the rest of society, but they also do not have the basic rights enjoyed by all other workers.

In this respect, the inadequacy of public policies in favour of the employment of disabled people is quite obvious. Admittedly, the purely quantitative obligation for companies with more than 20 employees to employ at least 6% of disabled workers has had some positive effects in reducing the unemployment rate for these people, but much less in terms of progress towards real equal rights. A large part of the efforts of both employers and public actors is devoted to identifying the types of jobs or professions that they consider most adaptable or suitable for disabled workers, which has the main effect of confining those recruited to subordinate positions, with no career development prospects similar to those of their non-disabled colleagues.

Beyond the situation of these workers, access to employment for people with disabilities in the ordinary working world remains marked by a very high level of discrimination. In France, this discrimination is the result of prejudices that are still strong and a profound ignorance of the realities of disability, resulting from our society's lack of inclusiveness, but also of considerable delays in terms of accessibility, compounded by employers' frequent refusal to accept requests to adapt jobs, despite the fact that they are reasonable. Faced with this reality, which means that in France disability is by far the main factor of discrimination, political will is still largely insufficient and still too ambivalent towards a historical model that perpetuates the exclusion of disabled people. Claire Hédon, Rights Defender, recognises that "France has not yet fully taken into consideration the new rights-based approach brought about by the Convention". 

In this respect, the inadequacy of public policies in favour of the employment of disabled people is quite obvious. Admittedly, the purely quantitative obligation for companies with more than 20 employees to employ at least 6% of disabled workers has had some positive effects in reducing the unemployment rate for these people, but much less in terms of progress towards real equal rights. A large part of the efforts of both employers and public actors is devoted to identifying the types of jobs or professions that they consider most adaptable or suitable for disabled workers, which has the main effect of confining those recruited to subordinate positions, with no career development prospects similar to those of their non-disabled colleagues.

In countries with a longer history of mainstreaming an equal rights approach, all jobs, with some exceptions, must as a matter of principle be accommodated for applicants, provided that they involve only reasonable accommodation and that the applicants have the necessary skills. Refusal to accommodate is then clearly considered discriminatory. In terms of employment rates, the record in these countries is not always better, but disabled workers in these countries feel less pressure to move in a direction they have not chosen. However, Sweden, a country that has long since set itself the goal of moving towards real equal rights, abandoning the institutionalisation of disability as early as the 1970s, has achieved better results. These results are mainly based on a much stronger active and financial participation of the public authorities than in France (4% of the GDP devoted to its policy of support for people with disabilities compared to only 2% in France). Thus, in order to give disabled people a maximum chance of finding a job that fully corresponds to their wishes and skills, the public authorities do not limit themselves to covering the cost of adapting a job, but go as far as covering the cost of individual assistance when necessary.

Moreover, if instead of starting from the vision that companies have of disability and the place that they can possibly give to disabled workers, public policies would refocus on the professional aspirations of these people, they would necessarily be very different. Supporting entrepreneurship among people with disabilities would also appear to be a much more important issue. In this respect, the 80,000 disabled entrepreneurs in France, who have long been ignored by the public authorities, show a diversity of talents and a serious entrepreneurial spirit, which deserve to be supported more.

In order to make more effective progress towards real equality, the employment obligation should not necessarily be abandoned and should perhaps even be strengthened in a logic of standardisation of employment in order to build a more inclusive society (the employers concerned in France still only have 3.8% of disabled workers). In this case, it should be supplemented by obligations in terms of equal pay, but above all it should be part of a much more demanding policy in terms of equal rights. Finally, support for entrepreneurship among people with disabilities should also be strengthened and placed back at the heart of public policies, from which it is very often absent.

Removing barriers to the free movement of workers and building a new, truly inclusive European social model

While disability is taken into account in various forms and to varying degrees in the public employment policies of all European countries, the issue becomes more complicated when disabled workers want to assert their right to the freedom of movement that all European workers are supposed to enjoy.

Indeed, the administrative recognition of disability, which is often an essential condition for claiming one's rights in the context of a job search, is based on rules and administrative procedures specific to each country. Reciprocal recognition is far from automatic and may require long and uncertain procedures, thus excluding a large number of people from the right to European professional mobility.

In the framework of the presentation of the 2021-2030 European Union strategy for the rights of people with disabilities, the European Commission decided to generalise from 2023 the distribution of a European disability card (carried until now in the framework of a pilot initiative by eight countries). The European Parliament has just supported this initiative with a resolution adopted by a very large majority. France must be ready for this generalisation, expected in 2023, and the European disability card must at least replace the RQTH (Recognition of the Quality of Disabled Worker), so that European disabled workers who may wish to come and live and work in France are no longer excluded.

In the same way, the measures recently opened in France to entrepreneurs with disabilities, at the instigation of the h'up entrepreneurs association, through the recognition of a status of TIH (Disabled Independent Worker), must be able to find a European dimension. Not only should all the foreign entrepreneurs concerned who are likely to operate on French territory be able to benefit from this, but beyond that, the best practices, such as the incentives allowed in access to certain public contracts, should also be able to find a European dimension.

Faced with the inadequacy of national public policies for the employment of people with disabilities and the discrimination caused by the strictly national methods of recognition, support and compensation, the European Union must therefore have a strong ambition to guarantee equal rights for all workers in Europe. To do this, it must go beyond mere recommendations for the implementation of the necessary changes, to take the lead in implementing an inclusive European social model.

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