all that glitters is not gold

March 2 | 2017

you’ve have come a long way, one would think. Inclusion is the idea that all people with disabilities should be integrated into society, from the kid in the classroom, to the adult in the workforce. It sounds great, doesn’t it? To make sure everyone got the memo, most western countries decided to create some laws in order to do what’s best. Schools are required to accept children with all disabilities and quotas ensure the integration of adults in the labor market. Anyone who would dare to question this narrative must be a bigot, right?

take a deep breath, get a cup of your favorite beverage and step aside from your little bubble. What you’re about to read might not be what you would like to hear, after you’ve been advocating the good cause throughout your career. But don’t worry, I know you mean well. So who am I to tell you all this? Well, I’m the one who technically would be on the receiving end. The one for whom you want to make the world a better place. According to many of you, I’d even be quite high on the “oppression” ladder as a non-straight, migrant female with a visual impairment. So there. Having lived in a few places I had the “luxury” to experience the whole spectrum of laws and regulations (or the lack thereof) first hand. For the record, I’m not looking for sympathy, I managed to make my way outside of the “system”, but that can’t be applied to everyone and it’s a different story for another article. And before you dismiss my observations as “anecdotal”, just look up the unemployment rates of people with disabilities in your country. If things were great, there would be no need for institutions raising awareness for inclusion and you would have chosen a different career path.

what could possibly go wrong?

employing people with disabilities can be tricky. Most employers have no idea what to make of all this, most of them have never met anyone who is disabled, some might or might not have a distant family member, but that’s about it. They don’t know what people with disabilities are capable of. Add a few misconceptions to the mix and there you have one reason why employers are so reluctant, and frankly, they can’t be blamed for it. Inclusion advocates then pushed for laws and quotas, to ensure that companies can’t weasel their way out so easily. So being forced to hire a certain percentage of [insert minority group here], candidates will be given the opportunity to work, employers do their duty and everyone is happy, right? Not quite.

Germany for example has protection laws make it harder for employers to fire disabled staff, the well-meant initiative turns out to be a nightmare for the disabled people themselves. As a result, companies find loopholes and tricks to go around the laws. Many rather pay the “penalty fee” rather than hire a person with a disability, others word their rejection letters carefully enough so no discrimination can be proven. Most people with disabilities end up in sheltered workshops with no chances to get into the regular work market. Those who are lucky enough to get a job often end up as “quota fillers” doing underpaid work and perform tasks way below their qualifications. Not many have the courage to speak up or complain, as they see this as the only alternative to being stuck forever on welfare. Since companies can’t get rid of them easily, many get bullied out of their jobs and end up devastated and discouraged.

The Netherlands has a different approach, the government (in this case the Dutch Employee Insurance Agency) bait companies with benefits by subsidizing jobs if a disabled person is hired. However, that comes at a price: The employee gets paid minimum wage, regardless of qualification. Any additional income they might make is going to be seized, which means that people get stuck in their positions with no chance to get promoted, much less paid what they’re worth. That is certainly not what inclusion would look like.

dream vs. reality

as of 2015, the UN has passed a treaty called “Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” which is intended to protect the rights of people with disabilities and attempting full quality under the law. EU countries are now required to achieve this goal. As good as it sounds, there’s still lots of work to be done. The fact alone that such treaty was necessary shows that all too well and is a sad reminder on how misconceptions and myths dominate the representation of people with disabilities, not to mention the media, charity organizations and even misguided behavior of disabled people themselves.

opportunities instead of “safe spaces”

one way to solve this problem is create awareness of what people with disabilities are capable of and how they can help themselves to get their job done, instead of pointing out the weaknesses and expecting others to solve problems for them. Forget quotas, people should be given equal opportunities, instead of equal outcome. At the end of the day, a company needs a skilled worker, not a [insert minority group here]. If the person can get the job done right, they should be hired and fired in case it’s not the right fit, just like anyone else. If people with disabilities want to be part of society, they also have to deal with being treated like everyone else. This requires a huge amount of self-reflection and responsibility – which is something institutions should help with instead of creating “safe spaces”. People don’t need a “comfort zone” in their situations, they need solutions to change their situation in order to have a better life and be a productive member of society. Everyone is different and has different needs and capabilities and laws and “one-size-fits-all” approaches do more harm than good.

on a personal note…

while living in Thailand (before the political situation went downhill), I had lots of opportunities and freedoms, even though there are no protection laws for people with disabilities, or anybody else for that matter. Nonetheless, I have met people who believed in my skills and who were always there to help if I needed it. No laws and regulations were needed. That should tell you something.

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