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‘People with disability can support the economy’

Ink – a new project spearheaded by Aġenzija Sapport – aims to bridge the gap between people with disability and employers. Photo: Shutterstock

Ink – a new project spearheaded by Aġenzija Sapport – aims to bridge the gap between people with disability and employers. Photo: Shutterstock

Last March, the European Semester Country Report on Malta showed how a third of Maltese companies reported a shortage in skilled workers. At first reading, that statistic would spell bad news for businesses, but good news for economic growth – the ever-widening gap of vacancies would, in fact, be taken as a strong sign that given the shortage of workers, no members of our society were being overlooked.

That said, a closer look at workforce statistics will yield the painfully obvious observation that people with disability have been somewhat excluded from the boom in employment opportunities.

The National Policy on Disabled Persons and Employment, published by the Commission for Rights of Persons with Disability in 2009, reported that only 0.9 per cent of disabled people attend post-secondary education, 110 have attended vocational training provided by ETC and FITA, 347 are employed in public service, and 311 individuals are registered for work with the ETC.

In 2015, during a debate in Parliament, it was reported that the rate of employment for people with disability stood at a mere five per cent – and that out of some 20,000 people who have registered a disability in Malta.

While the numbers may seem disheartening, Andrew Camilleri, project leader at Aġenzija Sapport, does not let them dampen his enthusiasm. The agency is currently working on a new project Ink – short for inklużjoni (inclusion) – a person-focused inclusion project which is part-finaced by the European Social Fund and aims to “invest in human capital to create more opportunities and promote the well-being of society”.

Speaking about the scope and goals for the project, Camilleri describes Ink as a supported employment scheme that not only offers people with disabilities a form of vocational training, but also targets employers and parents to be able to support and offer an inclusive environment when employing people with disabilties.

Changing a mindset, however, is no mean feat. One of the challenges many persons with a deviability face when entering the workforce is the notion that their disability has taken precedence over their personhood. Employers might imagine a stereotype of a wheelchair-bound person with intellectual disabilities and write off their skills.

“The reality is that disabilities are complex and require varied types of support,” Camilleri says. “Regardless, people with disability are capable of bringing value, even financial, to a business.”

Camilleri also stresses that while the charitable intentions of employers are a good place to start a conversation, they need to have a realistic perspective on how to accommodate employees with disabilities. “In order for this to be sustainable, it can’t be charity.”

That being said, changes that are required to support and hire people with disability is not as intrusive nor expensive as one might imagine. This is why project Ink will be working with frontline professionals to offer a rating service to potential employers. These professionals will be assessing the workplace environment, the physical space as well as the overall attitudes, and offer a rating, as well as support in broadening their workplace accessibility. Those who meet all the goals will be awarded an ‘Ink Certification’.

Disabilities are complex and require varied types of support

“We’ve deliberately chosen to have a broader reach,” Camilleri says, on the structure of the training programme. “We could have provided training solely for persons with disability, but we wanted it to go further, to change people’s mindset.”

“When you’re tackling a mentality you’re starting from a situation where people already have preconceived notions, you never start with a blank paper, and you almost need to reconstruct all the ideas and start over.”

Some elements of the project have been inspired by international partners, particularly in Ireland, who have started moving away from residential care and towards the idea of supported employment. It is not a revolutionary concept that an adult of working age should be doing something productive to earn an income, boost their self-esteem and challenge them – a concept that should apply to a disabled person equally.

“I don’t think this project will be the one to ‘change a mentality’, but I want it to be something that can be a successful model that we can not only look back on but also build further initiatives on a national level.”

Change on a national level, however, requires not only businesses to be gracious with their resources, but also a strong policy to support these initiatives. Presently, the government is committed to enforcing a quota which requires employers with more than 20 employees to have at least two per cent be people with disabilities. Failure to comply nets a fine of €2,400 per person, capped at €10,000. For larger businesses the sum might be a drop in the ocean, and many prefer to pay the fines rather than commit to fostering an inclusive workplace.

“It’s a bit of a punishment system,” Camilleri says, “but it’s a pity that there are businesses who choose to pay fines instead of trying new things.”

This is why one of the aims of the projects is to show employers that they are stubbornly taking a loss when there is the potential to gain. “I can understand why the policy exists in its current form, but without incentives you aren’t likely to find many who will show interest.”

On another level, Ink also hopes to train parents of disabled people in better helping their children on the road to supported independence. Parents often fear that their children may encounter harm or prejudice because of their disability. However, those who find support and encouragement from their parents often find greater success in achieving their goals, Camilleri says.

Having people with a disability succeed in supported employment may also help alleviate the financial burden on the family. Camilleri and the agency are well aware that parents of disabled children often teeter close to the poverty line, particularly if the disability requires extensive intervention or alterations to the family’s lifestyle. The help of an additional income may serve to offset some costs, and also provides peace of mind. Knowing that their child is capable of living somewhat independently can help to soothe parents who worry about a child’s continued care should they become suddenly unable to do provide it.

Camilleri is confident that the project is heading for success, with many participants eagerly awaiting training sessions to begin. His message to employers? “Give us a chance to show you what people with disability really have to offer.”

Employers who would like to participate in the scheme or applicants wanting to sign up for training can contact Aġenzija Sapport on 2256 8000 or send an e-mail to sapport@gov.mt.

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