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Questions and answers on the impact of the crisis on people with disabilities

With some 10 percent of the world population living with disabilities – the current global economic crisis is cause for concern. People with disabilities are often excluded and marginalized, and are particularly vulnerable in times of crisis. This week, Academy Award winning actress Marlee Matlin and a panel of experts will address the impact of the crisis on people with disabilities and what can be done about it. ILO Online spoke with Barbara Murray, senior disability specialist at the ILO, about the importance of including people with disabilities in measures to tackle the crisis.

Artículo | 11 de noviembre de 2009

What has been the impact of the crisis on persons with disabilities?

Barbara Murray: There are very few reliable, global data about persons with disabilities in the crisis, so we have to rely on recent news reports. These indicate that the number of disabled workers employed is being reduced, public expenditures on programmes relevant to their employability and employment are being squeezed and demand for products of enterprises employing disabled persons may be reduced. These developments are taking place in labour markets where men and women with disabilities were already at a disadvantage, with higher unemployment rates and lower labour force participation rates than non-disabled persons. The current economic crisis highlights the barriers faced by people with disabilities and brings into sharper focus the need for inclusive and sustainable development.

Can you give us a few concrete examples?

Barbara Murray: It has been reported that in Japan, companies cut nearly 2,800 jobs for disabled persons last year, the highest level in six years. In Australia, the decline in GDP has lead to massive cuts in federal spending on programmes that prepare people with disabilities for employment. A recent study on Social Security Disability Insurance in the US shows that the number of disabled people applying for claims reached a high of more than 2.3 million in 2008, most likely reflecting their reduced income from employment. These are some of the examples we have been able to compile – it is likely that there are many more.

So there is a strong link between disability and poverty?

Barbara Murray: Disability is both a cause and a consequence of poverty. The links between poverty and disability are widely acknowledged. The UN estimates that 80 per cent of disabled persons in developing countries live in poverty. Around 20 per cent of the world’s poor have a disability, according to the World Bank. What’s more, many disabled persons in developing countries live in rural areas where access to training, work opportunities and services are limited. People with disabilities are less likely to be in employment than non-disabled persons. They are also more likely to earn lower wages than non-disabled persons.

What are the main issues to be tackled in promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities?

Barbara Murray: Underlying the patterns of poverty, low labour force participation and employment rates and wage inequalities that are evident around the world, important issues to be tackled are access to education and to training in skills relevant to the labour market. According to UNESCO, more than 90 per cent of children with disabilities in developing countries do not attend school, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to getting into skills development programmes and competing for jobs in the labour market or setting up viable small businesses. In addition, inaccessible physical environments and communications technologies prevent disabled people from participating on an equal basis with others. And very fundamentally, mistaken assumptions about their abilities and working capacity, and related negative attitudes frequently lead to discrimination when it comes to applying for jobs, being promoted or keeping a job when a worker acquires a disability.

Besides children, what is the impact on women with disabilities?

Barbara Murray: Among persons with disabilities, men are almost twice as likely to have jobs as women. For example, in European Union countries, 49 per cent of disabled women and 61 per cent of disabled men are employed, compared to 64 percent of non-disabled women. In the Republic of Korea, 20.2 per cent of disabled women and 43.5 per cent of disabled men are employed compared to 49.2 and 71.1 per cent for non-disabled women and men.

What is the role of the ILO with respect to the crisis and disability at work?

Barbara Murray: The ILO’s Global Jobs Pact adopted by consensus of workers, employers and governments at the International Labour Conference in June 2009, provides a roadmap for recovery – at the local, national and global level – from this crisis with a renewed quest for a fair and sustainable globalization. It is based on the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda which embraces employment, rights, social protection and dialogue. The Pact will also help to bridge the equality gap between women and men with disabilities and non-disabled people in a downturn and contributes to social cohesion and stability.

What steps are being taken by the ILO to bridge the gap between people with disabilities and non-disabled people?

Barbara Murray: The simplest way to answer this question is to say that we have a twin track approach: The first involves disability specific programmes or initiatives at the country level aimed at overcoming particular disadvantages or obstacles experienced by some people with disabilities. The second track seeks to ensure that disabled persons are included in mainstream services and programmes on vocational training, employment, entrepreneurship development and micro-finance.

Until full inclusion and equal opportunity and treatment become a reality for people with all types of disability, the twin-track approach is necessary. In both approaches, we work through research, building knowledge on good practices, advocacy, capacity building, and technical cooperation services. Our work also involves outreach to media, more specifically, sharing the results of our experiences gained from research and lessons learned. There is a long way to go, but we are convinced that, working with governments, social partners, civil society agencies and disabled persons organizations around the world, together we can make a difference.

The event will take place on Thursday, 12 November 2009, from 2 to 3.30 p.m. at the International Labour Office in Geneva, Governing Body Room, Level R-3 South. Open to the public, Photo ID required for entry to ILO, French sign language interpretation provided.