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Opinion: Low ambition and poor policy keeping people with disabilities out of workplace

Joan O’Donnell writes that it’s time to ditch failing strategies and embrace an inclusive future of work.

Joan O’Donnell

COVID-19 HAS COMPOUNDED the difficulties workers with disabilities face, but it did not cause the fault-line in Irish social policy that resulted in Ireland having the poorest EU participation rates in the workforce… even before the pandemic.

Despite the shift in emphasis to remote working in the last year, there is scant regard for the potential this offers people with disabilities in a post-pandemic world.

While working from home does not suit all jobs any more than it does all personality types, it does create more options. So where are workers with disabilities in this picture? Could it be that they are obscured by policies which often create more obstacles than opportunities?

  • Read more here on how you can support a major project by the Noteworthy team into the impact that the pandemic will have on jobs for people with disabilities.

Despite all the strategies, programmes, interventions, projects, grants and personnel involved in supporting people into the workplace, it must be clear to everyone that something is not working.

It was not working before the pandemic, it is not working now, and will not work into the future – unless we take a radically different approach and aim higher.

Supports impossible to navigate

People with disabilities want to contribute to the economic recovery of our country. They want to participate in the labour market, to continue working after sickness or injury and achieve their potential.

What they have however, is a mishmash of different strategies and policies developed and enacted separately, using different measurements of success. Nowhere is this more evident than in the almost impossible to navigate supports aimed at increasing participation in the labour force.

What is given with one hand, is taken with another. You may work, but you may not have a personal assistant. You can get assistive technology, but you need to wait so long, that the job is gone.

The policies trip over each other and work against each other. This is the result of a reduction of complexity, where component parts of a situation are dealt with separately and managed through “discreet interventions, layered on top of another” instead of being understood at a strategic level as a complex whole.

Under-ambitious strategy

Research just published suggests that the Irish approach has succumbed to this very thinking trap: policies and programmes are boxed into neat silos of geography, eligibility, income thresholds, employment support type, and disability type.

But the reality is that people with disabilities are just like everyone else – people with different talents, skills and preferences, found everywhere and anywhere, with very diverse conditions, and having individual experiences of those conditions.

Effective policy making must match complexity rather than seek to reduce it into neat boxes, into which very few people fit.

The research, published by Eurofound – the EU agency for the improvement of living and working conditions – includes a chapter on the Irish situation.

As the researcher for the Irish case study, the frustration amongst everyone I spoke to was palpable. All well-meaning attempts to be constructive were constrained by a lack of vision or investment in strategic governance.

The 10-year Comprehensive Employment Strategy was regarded as “hugely under-ambitious” in vision, and lacking in strategic governance at a high enough level to be effective in implementation.

High control and low transparency 

It has been said that a bad system will beat a good person every time, and this is certainly borne out here. Looking at the current policy environment, there are concerns at every level from operations, coordination, management and monitoring, governance and strategic vision of the system of supports.

The landscape is characterised by a top-down paternalistic approach to policy-making which lacks transparency. This is coupled with high levels of control in management of services, all of which suppresses innovation, and increases competition between services vying for clients and funding.

We are looking at a creaking mechanism, which lacks ambition for itself, but more importantly, for those it serves.

Nothing short of radical transformation will stop the flow of yet another generation of young people, or people who acquire a disability during their working life disappearing into the obscurity of state and service dependency, out of sight and out of mind.

Embracing the complexity 

There are areas that could help transform this sector to a virtuous cycle of success.

The first involves reframing the issue as a complex one. This would have a dramatic effect on how we might approach the issue from a problem that can be fixed to one that requires continuous learning-in-action.

If we have learnt anything in the last year, it is 10-year strategies no longer apply. We need to commit to learning forward for the uncertain world that lies ahead.

The upcoming digital literacy strategy must give people access a digitalised public employment service as well as the remote workplace. Similarly, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe’s newly announced Commission on Taxation and Welfare must remove VAT on assistive technologies that are vital for participation and inclusion in the modern day workforce.

An approach informed by complexity, also needs a strong driving vision and shared purpose that puts people with disabilities first and involves them in the design and monitoring of progress, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities

Once the complexity and shared purpose are understood, it is time to grant autonomy to act to those closest to the jobseeker/worker alongside strong lines of accountability and responsibility. This would allow movement away from top-down management practices.

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Investment is also required in a culture of better coordination between services and encourage sharing of knowledge between them about what works and doesn’t work.

Monitoring and evaluation of effectiveness must reside closer to the ground, and run alongside programmes rather than at the end of funding rounds, allowing programmes to learn, adapt and tailor services in a responsive way.

A future for all, not some

As we reimagine fresh hybrid working conditions for all our citizens post-pandemic, let us not forget the weariness at how things have been.

The last year is a good reminder for some of us, about what jobseekers with disabilities already know: that the unrelenting endless cycle of groundhog days and going nowhere wears thin.

We all need hope, and to believe that there is a life, a job, a future waiting for us. And we need that future to deliver, now more than ever.

Joan O’Donnell is an independent consultant, lecturer in Systems Thinking and doctoral researcher. She manages FreedomTech – a project which aims to ensure that all people with disabilities have access to the technology they need to participate fully in all aspects of living.

SHUTTING THE DOOR Investigation 

Do you want to know if the pandemic will make it even harder for people with disabilities to get jobs in Ireland?

The Noteworthy team want to do an in-depth investigation into whether recommendations made by joint Oireachtas committees two years ago have been implemented, how Ireland differs from our European neighbours in terms of supports and the impacts the ‘new normal’ will have on vulnerable groups.

Here’s how to help support this proposal>

About the author:

Joan O’Donnell

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