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Disability and equal opportunities

The contributions by Lino Spiteri (The Sunday Times, March 22) and Roberta Magri (The Sunday Times, March 1) on the daily frustrations being faced by persons with disability in their quest to live a life which grants them access to the fullest extent deserve to be given maximum attention. I have been directly involved in and closely followed the sphere of disability for over 10 years now and it is indeed frustrating to see that, in spite of huge steps forward towards a proper public assumption of collective responsibility, people like Ms Magri still experience one "up-against-a-blank-wall" situation after another. It is absolutely unacceptable, five years into our membership of the European Union that things have not moved faster and given more positive results.

The legal structure, through the enactment of the Equal Opportunities (Persons with Disability) Act 2000, has certainly proved to be a significant step forward. It is however by no means an end achieved. It should be the beginning of a process aimed at changing our approach and our mentality on disability in general and at putting the principle of equal opportunities in the sphere of disability into practice.

The National Commission for Persons with Disability (KNPD) has been given reasonably wide-ranging powers in this regard but unless it is given more resources and structures to fully exercise these powers, it cannot be expected to deliver more than it is delivering at present.

We have come a long way but it is quite simply not enough. We need to work more towards a state of disability awareness. We need to ensure that these legal provisions also make a long-term difference in the lives of those they are designed for.

The government does not really have funding for sustaining long-term employment of persons with a disability. Therefore, if the equal opportunities principle is to work well, there should be some form of employment support that is there "forever" and fills the gap, in particular for those with more pronounced learning disability.

In many cases of physical disability, all it takes is a bit of open-mindedness and, possibly, some architectural changes to the place of work. In others they need assistive technologies but if these needs are met, the individual can perform at par with anyone else. These therefore do not need any subsidy. It is a matter of monitoring that the minimum legal requirement for employing people with disability is met and that equal opportunities are truly in place.

In other cases, the disability is such that open employment is unrealistic. Sheltered or supported employment is the next best option but this is costly. Some registered charities have a number of employees working in sheltered employment. Their productivity is measured and often this is high enough to justify their employment. But when this drops because of illness (related to their condition), the companies have to bear the cost, which may be beyond what is "reasonable". This cost should be funded by the ETC or through a public programme not directly by the employer.

ETC/EU schemes work well on facilitating employability and employment to an extent but once the individual is employed, funding soon stops (up to a maximum of three years in some schemes).

This runs counter to the idea of equal opportunities as people with disabilities are then laid off as their "unsubsidised" wages may no longer match their productivity.

Corporations do have a responsibility to support employment of all but they should not, particularly in tough times such as the current ones, be burdened unnecessarily. It should not be "more difficult" to sustain a disabled employee. It should be a level playing field both ways.

This is mostly relevant to those who have learning disabilities. For those with physical impairments, entry into the workforce is the major obstacle; once they are "in" then they can prove their value and do away with misconceptions. Again, if they have an illness that causes undue time off work, then the companies should not be made to shoulder the cost alone.

As for the overall economic value of employment in the "third sector", it is usually the case that those with disabilities work on a minimum wage. Many can only work up to 20 hours because it otherwise eats away from their pension. Their combined earnings are hardly enough to survive, so in many cases most people are not motivated to seek employment in the first place. The cost of travel is huge for wheelchair users, further diluting their income.

There does not seem to be an easy short-term solution but if the government looked at the long-term value of keeping people in employment, then it would start making more sense. There is less of a burden to social services; people become more independent and require less care. It breeds entrepreneurial spirit and encourages enterprise, particularly with those with physical disabilities. It improves society. Social enterprise is one of the fastest growing markets in the UK. From a "burden" on social services, they become tax payers.

If opportunities are there, more people will aspire to work and continue their education. Putting equal opportunities into real practice will set off a positive cycle for society and for the individual.

The author will contest the MEP elections on a Nationalist Party ticket.

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