Abandon routine thinking

Anna Wandzel - President of the Province Community Disability Council operating under the auspices of the Marshal of Silesian Province, member of the Come CloSeR to Disability Task Force, Director of the Silesian Branch of the State Disability Fund until 2017, graduate in Psychology at the University of Silesia (US) in Katowice and founder of the Disability Support Service there as well as first-ever Disability Officer appointed by the US Rector. Anna loves faraway travels and adventures.

The text by Anna Wandzel lifted from the guidebook entitled The Accessible Company in an Accessible Environment published by the Managers of the Future MOFFIN Foundation in cooperation with the Come CloSeR to Disability Task Force.

Plates cannot speak

I try to avoid dividing the society into individuals with and without disabilities, I prefer to look at individuals open to and not open to new experiences, those putting things into perspective and those who are not, the arrogant and the polite, the lazy and the hardworking, and this type of selection seems the most natural for me. I have observed relationships occurring between individuals with disabilities and those who do not have a disability throughout my entire career, and the conclusion at which I arrived is first of all not to replace the real actions of the other person with your ideas on how their performance ought to be.

My first significant professional experience consisted of activating individuals with intellectual disabilities to enter the labour market. I remember a boy with autism who was drying plates in a kitchen. I tried to understand him in the manner I was taught: “watch the other and enter his world as if it was your world”. So I tried to connect with him and said: “You are talking to these plates, and what do they say back to you?” And it was my first therapeutic success, because I was able to get the autistic person out of their own world. We caught eye contact and he said: “But Miss, the plates do not speak...”. Yes, this statement has taught me humility...

Another experience: I was working as a recruiter, searching for candidates, for, among others, managerial positions. My astonishment grew when I received applications from persons with disabilities in which the first statement in their resume read “I am disabled”. I was immensely surprised that candidates applying for a job will, in the first place, describe themselves in such a manner. How can the other party react, if the candidate starts by presenting themselves in the perspective of their disability?

The third professional experience: I was working in a managerial position at a state institution that offers support to persons with disabilities. From the room next door I can hear a difficult client making demands for funding they are not entitled to. Amicable attempts to explain the situation by the employees fail and the applicant calls to speak with a decision-making person. As soon as he enters my office, he looks me up and down and says: “finally someone competent to talk to” (I am a person with a mobility disability).

The question is why do we assume that an individual with disability will be more competent than a non-disabled person when dealing with cases of individual with a disability, why do we anticipate that a failed adaptation at work only results from the person’s disability, and why do we believe to be experts and know better? It is caused by stereotypes and attributions, which impact our perception of reality. We can only counteract them by educating and raising awareness on disability and teaching inclusivity at all levels, from education to employment.

Leaders with disabilities

The fact is that, depending on the country, there are various ways of dealing with the system of penalties and incentives for hiring candidates with disabilities, which results in different ratios of their participation in the labour market. In the EU, the employment rate for persons with disabilities is on average about 48.7%, while for people without disabilities it amounts to 72.5%. This clearly shows that although all sort of support is available, no country has fully addressed this issue. During our study visits at universities in Denmark, Great Britain and Germany we have also met with peculiar situations of untapped potential offered by the university and the labour market. In the countries that offer an extensive system of social support persons with disabilities do not strive to obtain work, although they are offered support in obtaining higher education, because social security does not give them any incentive to. The same happens when the system of support is aimed only at the economic aspect of employment incentives.

After having worked with persons with disabilities for over 18 years I know that, irrespective of the support offered, the group of individuals with various disabilities will always include those individuals who push on ahead, improving their qualifications, and who are aware of the goal they strive to reach .It is this part of the group that will become successful, even if they obtain minimal support. They can probably be called the leaders with disabilities, who are pioneers and examples for others. The ideal solution, which we would like to promote, is to provide equal educational and professional opportunities for the persons with disabilities, by offering systemic solutions while preparing companies for the inclusion of qualified persons with disabilities into their structures at different levels. This is done through professional exercises in the area of ​​disability awareness, the exchange of experience, listing good practices within the recruitment process, the implementation of tasks and the preparation of the work environment and co-workers to welcome persons with disabilities. We should start with the leaders, although there are not many of them, they can become the ambassadors of this process.

In Poland the percentage of persons with disabilities, who are employed is growing systematically, albeit still quite slowly. The facts seem to be optimistic. When meeting with persons with disabilities during job fairs I frequently hear that there is no work for those persons with a disability who have finished higher education. The work offered does not demand high and specialist qualifications. The overwhelming number of offers is addressed to persons with disabilities who are not well educated, and the positions offered are for manual labour. The most common job offers include positions for: cleaners, security guards, janitors, maintenance workers, warehousemen, production workers and telephone sales representatives. Meanwhile, the percentage of people with higher education is growing steadily due to the combination of a number of factors: the awareness of the value that a higher education offers, a better adaptation of universities to students with a disability, funding offered for university education. It is quite natural that university graduates expect to be employed according to their qualifications.

Persons with disabilities with higher education can find work in public administration, which offers stable employment, safe working conditions, career prospects and the prestige resulting from working for the benefit of the society. Sadly, the employment rate of the disabled is still negligible within the structures of the public administration. The ministries and central offices employ 1.5% of persons with disabilities, and the civil service 2.8%. In 2011, the act on amending the Law on Civil Service was passed. While maintaining the principles of an open and competitive recruitment, the provisions of the act give a person with disability a priority to be employed. If the employment rate at the office amounts to less than 6% for the persons with disability, a person with disability has the priority to be employed as long as within the recruitment process they have passed to the stage of the final five or two (in cases of managerial positions) best candidates. The Act also specifies the need for the job offer to state the conditions of the proposed position, so that a person with disability, who is interested in working for the civil service, can assess their own abilities and make a decision whether to apply for the position. What is then the root of the problem? We have a very well educated group of young persons with disabilities, available legal and economic instruments encouraging the employment of individuals with disabilities, as well as the employers guided by different incentives (internal company policy, the need to ensure diversity within the team, employment streamlining, economic factors).

Most of the employers are interested in hiring a person with a disability. However, such statements are often empty declarations. The research conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs among people responsible for the human resources policy in companies shows that factors that inhibit the employment of persons with disabilities are concerns about increased illness related absenteeism - 35%, lack of independence - 23%, reduced productivity - 20%, reduced availability - 18%, lower level of professional qualifications - 12%, conflict generation - 11%, entitlement mentality - 11%. As a result, about 70% of employers surveyed would not have decided to hire a person using a wheelchair. Fewer employers were also willing to hire persons with sensory disability. The most disadvantaged candidates were assessed to be people suffering from mental disorders or epilepsy.

Let us notice however, that the majority of the mentioned limitations is related to the perceptions people hold on disabilities and that result from stereotypical knowledge or rather the lack of it, on how a person with a specific disability performs as an employee. In fact, the factors that are present in real life are increased absenteeism and a relatively lower, in comparison to individuals without disabilities, level of education represented by the persons with a disability. The attitudes of individuals without disabilities towards individuals with disabilities are spread on a continuum from acceptance to anxiety. It is the easiest to accept persons with physical disabilities. Negative attitudes are more likely to be triggered against those persons with disabilities, who differ significantly from the norms adopted in the given environment either by their appearance or the manner of behaviour or functioning. The contemporary economic, psychological, sociological and pedagogical knowledge fortunately unmasks these convictions, and shows that their sources lie in the mechanisms involved in the use of stereotypes, attribution, and other mechanisms that govern the processes of perception. Therefore there is a need for exercises expanding the knowledge of the employers and co-workers on the modern understanding of disability.

With regard to persons with disability there are also many stereotypes and prejudices that impede the drive to professional activity. These include the fear to lose disability benefits, high levels of professional inactivity, inadequate qualifications, lack of work experience, and an over-protective attitude of the parents. Many misunderstandings also result from an ignorance of the laws and regulations included in the certificates of disability. Persons with total incapacity for work and independent existence or total incapacity (equivalent to a substantial and moderate degree of disability) certified by a competent authority often misrepresent their situation as an actual incapacity. A person with a disability thinks that they have a “ban” on taking up any jobs, and the employer, who is not aware of the regulations, is afraid that by hiring a person with such a certificate they are breaking the law. It leads to the conviction of both parties that employment is not possible. Meanwhile, Article. 4(5) of the Act on Occupational and Social Rehabilitation and Employment of Persons with Disabilities states explicitly that "having been certified with a substantial or moderate degree of disability does not exclude the possibility of being employed by an employer who does not provide sheltered employment provided there has been issued a positive opinion of the National Labour Inspectorate on the adaptation of the workplace to the needs of persons with disabilities by the employer." As in the case of any other employee, the fitness to work in a given position will be determined by an occupational physician. The doctor makes a decision ba

sed on the person’s individual situation, their condition and the type of work involved. If the HR managers and recruiters are not trained in this respect, they may fear employing persons with disabilities.

I often hear the employers who hired persons with disabilities emphasize the extraordinary, as they believe, adaptations or organizational changes they have implemented in relation to the employment of persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, they often relate to obvious issues not connected at all with the rational improvement or required adaptations, and, what is more, they refer to the elementary principles directly arising from the law. Employers emphasize, for example, that "all candidates are subject to verification and evaluation on a uniform and competitive basis - individuals with disabilities are treated on par with the other candidates" or that "workers with disabilities are employed on a par with non-disabled workers” or "all employees, regardless of whether they hold a disability certificate or not, have equal access to training." It clearly shows the vast area of ignorance about the real needs of the persons with disabilities at the workplace. It can only be changed by disability awareness training.

What future?

As the spectrum of disability is quite extensive, and the individual needs of persons with disabilities can be even more particularized in specific job circumstances, there is no room for one simple script or guideline that could be implemented in all situations.

An honest relationship with a worker with a disability should include exactly the same components as in the case of other employees. It should thus include the adaptation of the workplace, introduction into the team, ensuring equal access to promotion, training, etc. This should also mean the ability to carry out sincere, constructive and difficult conversations about mistakes that have been committed. A worker with a disability also deserves to be addressed about the areas they should work on to operate more effectively in their professional field. A person with a disability, who is a part of the team, is the same employee as any other, the only thing that distinguishes them is the need to perform some of the activities in an alternative way, which, at the present stage of technological advancement and modern management methods, should not be a challenge for the manager thinking about his team in terms of the benefits of diversity.

Certainly, to overcome the fear of the new and unknown process of involving persons with disabilities into the team, it is best to somehow combine the mutual environments, learning and adapting to one another.

If we do not treat the person and their abilities as the primary factor, the financial support system under the legislation will only be a prosthesis, and most employers will not have enough courage, will and motivation to understand how the persons with disabilities function so they can offer them cooperation. When, however, the person with their abilities, aptitudes and qualifications is the priority it will be easier for the employer to abandon the rigid rules and procedures, and create a truly friendly workplace.

The text features information lifted from

a brochure produced on the project entitled “Employment of persons with disabilities on the open labour market. Systemic conditions”, Instytut Spraw Publicznych 2009.

Data from the System for Subsidy and Refund Management (SODiR) available at,83,sodir-pfronv