Disability and work

Marlee Matlin urges that people with disabilities be “counted in” economic recovery efforts

Expressing concern that people with disabilities may face rising exclusion from the world of work due to the global economic crisis, Academy Award winning actress, television star and activist Marlee Matlin urged that they be “counted in” efforts to stimulate and support economic recovery.

Press release | 12 November 2009

GENEVA (ILO News) – Expressing concern that people with disabilities may face rising exclusion from the world of work due to the global economic crisis, Academy Award winning actress, television star and activist Marlee Matlin urged that they be “counted in” efforts to stimulate and support economic recovery.

“We read headlines telling us of reduced employment of disabled workers, less public expenditure on programmes relevant to their employability and employment, and reduced demand for products of enterprises employing disabled persons,” the actress said. “Disabled persons must also be ‘counted in’ programmes and services, including vocational and training, that help equip and prepare them for the economic upturn”.

Ms. Matlin was keynote speaker at a panel discussion held at the International Labour Office (ILO) on “People with Disabilities in Times of Economic Crisis.” The event heard warnings on the impact of the crisis from ILO Director-General Juan Somavia, ILO Employment Sector Executive Director José Manuel Salazar-Xirinachs, and other experts including Peter Purton, Policy Officer on Equality and Employment Rights, Trades Union Congress, United Kingdom and Bernie Jones, International Director, Shaw Trust Ltd., United Kingdom. Ambassador Dáithí Ó Ceallaigh, Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations spoke of Irish Aid’s support of ILO work to promote opportunities for persons with disabilities in developing countries, as well as legislation and policies in place in Ireland to prohibit discrimination against disabled persons.

According to UN and World Bank estimates, people with disabilities represent about 10 per cent of the global population, or about 650 million people, and an estimated 20 per cent of the world’s poor. The global economic crisis has already begun to impact on those with disabilities, especially women, according to the ILO.

Ms. Matlin stressed that people with disabilities face poverty both in developed and developing countries, noting that “in the US, a recent study shows that about half of all working-age adults who experience income poverty for at least 12 months have a disability.” At the same time, she said disabled women are particularly at risk of being poor, especially in developing countries.

She cited World Bank estimates that the cost of excluding people with disabilities from the workplace even before the crisis cost societies an estimated US$1.94 trillion in annual losses.

Mr. Somavia praised Ms Matlin’s role in promoting the rights of disabled people and her continued support for the work of the ILO in this area, saying that “Marlee Matlin’s example, her leadership and conviction, are indispensable in this effort to make the world at large see the abilities of the disabled and not just their disability”.

Mr. Somavia stated that the economic crisis has shaken the world into recognizing that it could not be business as usual. He noted that the ILO’s Global Jobs Pact specifies the need to help vulnerable groups most hard hit by the crisis. He called for action to ensure that “as any other worker, the person with a disability must be protected and empowered. This is the ILO’s approach”.

He also said that “a key dimension in the struggle for change is the inspiration we draw from those that have dared. And Marlee has connected with so many who are suffering – not because of their disability but because of societies’ attitudes to disability”.

In separate comments, Mr. Salazar said the ILO was working to increase labour force participation of people with disabilities, especially among women, to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against and disabled persons receive equal wages, promote educational and vocational training for them and break the link between poverty and disability.

“Together we can make a difference,” he said. “No one can do this alone.”

Ms. Matlin concluded her speech with a quote from the first deaf president of Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the world, who said “the only thing deaf people can’t do is hear” and then added, “that leaves a world of possibilities of things for me to do. I believe with all my heart that the real ‘handicaps’ we face do not lie in the ears, eyes, arms and legs of those who are differently-abled – they lie in the minds of those who handicap us”.