Getting a job if you’re sick or disabled can be an uphill struggle. Less than 40 percent of all disabled people in the Netherlands have a job – compared with 67 percent of able-bodied people. The figures in the Netherlands are only slightly lower than the European average, but what is particularly surprising is that there is no legislation in place here to encourage employers to take on disabled people.
“I had to learn to live with a new body, because that body doesn’t do the things it used to do and that takes a very long time to integrate it into your life.” July 31, 1983 was a life-changing day for Elise Adriaanse, then 20 years old. “I got a burst tire with my motorcycle, and from then on I had a spinal cord injury.” Gone were her plans to become a truck driver and get a teaching degree in biology. She ended up in a wheel chair.
Thanks to her energy and positive attitude to life, Elise managed to make a successful life in her ‘new body’. She now has two school-aged children, and for 13 years also had a demanding part-time job in human resources. Then two years ago she lost her job, along with many others in her department when the company was merged. Unlike her former colleagues, Elise has found it very difficult to find a new job. “I applied for many new jobs and I had several interviews but it never came to an employment contract because I had too much or too little experience, or I was too old or too young.”
Despite the proffered reasons, however, Elise is convinced that put off her prospective employers. “They think you are always ill or not very much outside hospitals. So when you get an interview you have to tell them over and over again: ‘I’m never ill’. You see that either they don’t believe it or they don’t trust the future.”
After two years of looking for a job in human resources, and a string of rejection letters, Elise decided the only way to get back into the workplace was to set herself up as a consultant, which she did at the beginning of this year.
Elise’s experience is not just anecdotal. Recent European statistics reveal that just under 40 percent of disabled people in the Netherlands have a job, compared with 67 percent of non-disabled people. People such as Frank Koehler of the Dutch Coalition on Disability and Development (DCDD), the largest disability organization in the Netherlands, are pushing for this to be changed through legislation – the Netherlands is one of few countries in the European Union that doesn’t make it a legal requirement for firms to take on disabled people.”We are for such a law but the government and the great majority of the political parties would say such a law wouldn’t work.”
Elise also feels such a law won’t make much difference. “There are always reasons not to take up people with disabilities in the company. They always find an excuse.”
Despite the lack of a specific law, there are already incentives in place to encourage employers to take on more disabled people. Firms can apply for money to pay for any extra equipment. It’s also possible for firms to get subsidies if they have a drop in productivity as a result of employing disabled people.
Furthermore, legislation notwithstanding, there are no countries in Europe where the employment rate for disabled people matches that of able-bodied people. Countries like Switzerland and France do the best job at getting disabled people into work. In Switzerland, for example, 62 percent of disabled people have a job, compared with 79 percent of non-disabled people. Frank Koehler believes that much could be achieved by changing the image of disabled people.
“Surveys among employers conclude these people don’t have a good view on the possibilities of disabled people but I’m not sure it’s the real reason why they don’t employ disabled people. I think the real reason is to avoid problems in their productivity and sometimes that’s right but what they don’t know is that they can get subsidies to narrow the gap of course.”
Despite months of setbacks, Elise remains positive about the future and about her next career move. She is continuing to look for a new job while supporting herself and her family with her own business. “I want to work. I’ve got two kids….[and I don´t want] my husband to have to earn it all by himself. I want to help him. I want to do something with my life.”
by Liesbeth de Bakker, based on a story by Nikki Brown, 30 June 2004