Special correspondent John Zarocostas interviewed Bob Ransom, a senior specialist in vocational rehabilitation and employability with the International Labor Organization (ILO), in Geneva on Friday. Saturday was the International Day of Disabled Persons.
Mr. Ransom, 60, a U.S. citizen, is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the American University in Washington. From 1978 to 1986, he was director of international programs at Goodwill Industries, a U.S. nonprofit organization that trains disabled people and others with special needs.
Question: Worldwide, rough-ly how many people are disabled and looking for employment?
Answer: The World Health Organization uses an estimate of 600 million with disabilities worldwide, or 10 percent of any population.
Obviously, the majority of the 600 million are in developing countries, such as China or India. Of those in developing countries, 80 percent to 90 percent of disabled persons of working age are unemployed, whereas in industrialized countries, the figure is between 50 percent and 70 percent.
Q: December 3 is the Day of Disabled Persons, created by the U.N. General Assembly to bring attention to the problem you mentioned, which is a lack of job opportunities for persons with disabilities.
A: As you can imagine, it’s very difficult to collect accurate statistics on the number of persons with disabilities, because each country tends to use a different definition of what disability is.
We find the statistics vary from 4 to 5 percent of the population having a disability in developing countries, all the way up to 20 to 25 percent in industrialized countries. The reason is that in industrialized countries, governments … count chronic illnesses like kidney failure, diabetes, et cetera, as disabilities. In developing countries, “the disabled” are limited to people who are blind, deaf or physically disabled.
That accounts for part of the reason. The other big problem, of course, is in the area of unseen disabilities, such as intellectual disability and mental illness. Mental illness is a health condition, but it often goes unrecorded. In industrialized countries, it’s easier to count people with mental illness because often they are under treatment, but not so in developing countries.
Q: People with disabilities are also often discriminated against regarding salaries and wages. How prevalent is this?
A: Unfortunately, it’s true. Anecdotal evidence that we have points to this, because disabled people are so eager to have a job that paying them less for the same work is one way employers can offer employment and save money.
Q: How do high percentages of unemployed disabled persons square with laws in many industrialized countries, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act adopted in 1990? Is the problem more with employers than with lawmakers?
A: It’s a combination of factors. In the United States, one of the disincentives for getting a job is the fact that there is no universal health care. For disabled persons who are on Social Security disability benefits and rely on Medicare, if they become employed, they lose those benefits.
It’s a real risk, because their employer may not provide medical coverage, or the coverage could be inadequate. Also, they could lose their job, and because of bureaucracy, it takes time to get back on the disability rolls.
Many disabled persons made the conscious decision that getting a job is too big a risk.
That said, there are other problems. There is still discrimination in the workplace. Employers are still uncomfortable about hiring a person with a disability. Of course, in many countries now — thanks to legislation — discrimination on the basis of disability is against the law.
In the United States, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, there have been lawsuits precisely because of discrimination. Often, disabled people who are already employed and then are fired sue in wrongful-dismissal lawsuits; these are not uncommon.
Q: Studies have shown that many people with disabilities are highly motivated and once hired are very good performers in the workplace, but a lot of the time this is overlooked.
A: Let me talk about the area that I know best — developing countries and in particular Africa. In those countries, the disabilities that are most common are physical disabilities, often caused by polio, by various types of accidents, also by illness. So, often, among the most highly motivated are people who have mobility problems.
As you can imagine, the barriers and the difficulties they face often are physical. There are environmental barriers in just moving around — just lacking transportation, being unable to get into buildings, both public and private.
Very few developing countries have building codes that require accessibility, so this is one of the big frustrations.
More and more young people with physical disabilities are going to school, and they’re coming out with skills and qualifications, and they’re still having difficulty finding jobs.
For that reason, the strategy that the ILO has been promoting in such countries is self-employment, because there are so few open, competitive-employment jobs anyway for the population in general.
Q: Are there special areas where you’re focusing your efforts, like information services for persons with disabilities?
A: Absolutely. There’s no question the information revolution has opened up new possibilities, and it’s one of the areas were focusing on — computer skills, call centers. In terms of self-employment, helping people set up their own call centers, their own secretarial services — using computers, scanners, printers.
These are services they can offer to the general public, because very few people [in Third World countries] have their own computers and their own equipment.
And this is also the big leveler, as today, most people have access to the Internet. The persons they’re communicating with do not know they’re disabled.
Q: What are some of the common barriers disabled persons face in trying to secure a job?
A: This is very important. We work closely with what are called disabled persons’ organizations, both internationally and nationally.
These are organizations of deaf people, blind people, the physically disabled and parents who have intellectually disabled children.
These organizations are in the lead in advocating equality of opportunity and often the most vocal in promoting ILO Convention 159, adopted in 1983, concerning vocational rehabilitation and employment for disabled persons.
What we hear from these groups is, the biggest barriers they’re running into is attitude. The problem they face is that the general public, when they look at a person with disability, first thinks of the disability and not the person.
This is because, over the years, the way of understanding disability is what we call a medical or deficit way of looking at disability. You look at the deficit of the individual and then try to figure out what can cure or change, can rehabilitate that person.
Now, we’re talking about the social model of disability and not the medical model. The social human rights model, which says the social problems disabled people face are not really due to their disability but to the barriers they encounter in society.
Q: Are you seeing such a shift?
A: We’re seeing this shift, particularly in anti-discrimination legislation. The United States is an example. The United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, many of the industrialized countries.
The European Union countries all now have — or are moving toward — an anti-discrimination framework. Developing countries are also moving that way. South Africa has outstanding legislation in this area; Brazil — this is the trend now to move away from disability as a rehabilitation issue to one of rights issues.
Q: In what other ways are disabled persons put in a severe disadvantage?
A: Two years ago, the World Bank conducted a global survey of people with HIV/AIDS and disabilities, and it found some astonishing things.
It found that disabled people were two to three times at greater risk of becoming HIV-positive than the general population. For two major reasons: One, the messages about HIV/AIDS are not reaching disabled people. You can understand why. Many messages are on radio. Many deaf people do not access radio. Many messages are written. Blind people do not access those messages.
Disabled girls are subject to greater abuse than girls in general, and again you can understand why. Girls who have intellectual disabilities often fall victims to caregivers and others — blind girls, deaf girls, and it’s a big problem because they often have a problem communicating to others what has happened to them. So because of sexual abuse and other sorts of abuse, that’s what’s happening.