International Efforts to Address Disability in the Workforce

Tuesday, August 11, 2015 | Published by

By Disability_symbols_16.png: NPS Graphics, put together by User:Wcommons Pictograms-nps-accessibility-wheelchair-accessible.svg: NPS Graphics, converted by User:ZyMOS Pictograms-nps-accessibility-low_vision_access.svg: NPS Graphics, converted by User:ZyMOS Pictograms-nps-accessibility-sign_language_interpretation.svg: NPS Graphics, converted by User:ZyMOS Autismbrain.jpg: National Institutes of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health derivative work: Hamiltonham [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsApproximately 15% of the world’s population (estimated 1 billion people) live with disabilities.1 Despite such vast numbers, the rights of the disabled to obtain decent work is frequently denied. People with disabilities consistently face barriers to equal opportunities in the workplace. In comparison with non-disabled people, they experience higher rates of unemployment and economic inactivity and are at greater risk of insufficient social protection, which is key to reducing poverty. Indeed, there is a lack of concrete data regarding the types of jobs and sectors that disabled people are employed in, primarily because many disabled people employed in the ordinary labor market are not recognised in reported figures. As such, increased awareness and better coordination is required amongst industries and governments.

Global Guidance

Article 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) sets out “the right of persons with disabilities to work, on an equal basis with others; this includes the right to the opportunity to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities”. This includes prohibitions on discrimination, the protection of rights, access to education, opportunities for employment in the public and private sectors, possibilities for self employment and overall support in order to maintain employment on equal terms.

In 1992, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recognized the following provision; “A need for more co-ordination of all policies which affect the labour market participation of people with disabilities is an overriding concern”. The national reports regarding employment of disabled persons in Europe provides evidence of extended initiatives in policy and legislation in recent years. In spite of these initiatives and the focus on the integration of disabled people in the workplace, more can be accomplished.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has a long term commitment to promote and achieve decent work for people with disabilities, through a dual path to inclusion of disabled persons in the workforce. One path allows for disability specific programmes aimed at overcoming particular disadvantages, while the other path seeks to ensure the inclusion of disabled people in conventional services and activities. The ILO’s Disability Inclusion Strategy and Action Plan aims to create a truly inclusive workforce for people with disabilities. The strategy is guided by the following principles:

  • Non-discrimination
  • Equality of opportunity
  • Accessibility
  • Respect for disability as part of human diversity
  • Gender equality
  • Involvement of people with disabilities through their representative organizations

Tax Incentives for Businesses

A number of countries provide tax or reimbursement incentives for hiring disabled individuals (e.g. Brazil, China, Colombia, Finland, France, Greece, India, Malaysia, Norway, Russia, Taiwan and the United States).

While other countries permit employers to pay disabled employees less than the minimum wage in certain circumstances (e.g. New Zealand and South Korea).

It seems that most countries have schemes, whether federal or local, for providing incentives or reimbursements for the expense of physical structures designed to accommodate the disabled.

Legal Trends

In December of 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union (EJC) ruled that the obesity of a worker constitutes a ‘disability’ within the meaning of that directive where it entails a limitation resulting, in particular, from long-term physical, mental or psychological impairments which may, in interaction with various barriers, hinder the full and effective participation of the person concerned in professional life on an equal basis with other workers. It is for the national court to determine whether, in the main proceedings, such conditions exist.

However, in general, EU law does not prohibit discrimination on the grounds of obesity within the framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation (Council Directive 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000).


The concept of disability, from both a social and legal perspective, is evolving. Disability is defined in laws and regulations not only by visible conditions, for example, it might be defined as any impairment that limits the ability to carry out activities that are of importance to one’s daily life. Mental health related problems appear to have increased in the working environment of the 21st century. New technologies and medical advances often allow individuals to eliminate or reduce the effect of physical or mental impairment. Therefore, it is vital for employers worldwide to adequately implement disability-focused initiatives in order to create an all-inclusive workforce.

1 Disability and health Fact sheet N°352 by the World Health Organization, December 2014.
2 ECJ 18 December 2014, C-354/13, FOA (on behalf of K. Kaltoft) v Municipality of Billund

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons