Speech at the Zero Project Conference on “Employment Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Innovative Policies and Innovative Practices”

Speech given by Morten Kjaerum Director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, at the Zero Project Conference on 18 February in Vienna.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to thank the ZERO Project for this very timely and important initiative.

We have come a long way in recognising the rights of people with disabilities, with the CRPD a remarkable milestone in this regard. The CRPD is the first international human rights convention ratified by the European Union, which in itself is noteworthy. However, as we all know, there is still a long way to go. The headline figures are worrying: In the EU, on average, less than a third of people with disabilities had jobs, compared to over three-quarters of those without. Surely, this is a waste of potential talent and a missed opportunity for Europe. Can we afford to neglect the EU’s 80 million people with disabilities to that extent? I would say no. Clearly, we need to think out of the box and employ, in every sense, the full range of our existing human resources. And this includes people with disabilities. Europe’s 2020 strategy has inclusion for growth as a priority. We need to tap everyone’s human potential so that everyone enjoys their legal right to work. No discrimination, no barriers, no obstacles. Otherwise, we risk not realising our full potential. After all, people with disabilities represent an important source of talent, creativity and innovation in society. Everyone is entitled to work. It is a basic human right, protected by international treaties and the EU Fundamental Rights Charter. For people with disabilities especially, paid employment is also a key enabler for independent living and inclusion.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

According to studies, people with attention-deficit disorder are six times more likely than average to create their own business. That brings me to another important right, namely the freedom to conduct and run a business without discrimination or unnecessary restriction, also guaranteed by the EU Fundamental Rights Charter. This should not be underestimated: after all, there are 23 million small and medium-sized enterprises in the EU, representing 99% of businesses. They are widely acknowledged as a key driver for economic growth, innovation, employment and not least social integration. That’s why we need to break down the barriers that prevent people with disabilities from having the chance to become business leaders in their own right. That means equal access to credit and loans, equal support in the start-up phase etc.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I know, and appreciate there are many discussions on integration in companies. Most debates centre on cost without thinking of the many benefits, nor the broader cost of unemployment, and other costs. Workers with disabilities bring other benefits, other than just skills. A fully inclusive working environment is also a better working environment, for everyone. Many studies show that diversity and creativity are improved, teamwork is enhanced and that it in the end there is potential to benefit the bottom-line for everyone. On these issues, work on inclusion of people with disabilities can potentially gain from interaction and collaboration with those groups, and institutions, that focus on inclusion of other marginalised groups, such as migrants.

But to create inclusive workplaces we need to create accessible workplaces. I am sure the issues of accessibility and reasonable accommodation will undoubtedly be discussed during this conference. But to this discussion I would like to add the point that accessibility features are good for everyone, not just people with disabilities.

My point is that incorporating such features in workplaces, including the notion of universal design, can lead to safer, more comfortable, and more usable products and environments. Not only that, employees (and employers) benefit; for example, in times of temporary disability and as abilities change over time as workers age. Europe’s future Accessibility Act should be a key enabler here.

So let me close with the words of Canadian wheelchair athlete, Rick Hansen: “My disability is that I cannot use my legs. My handicap is your negative perception of that disability, and thus of me.” We can change that perception. We need to. Europe needs to.

Thank you.