“Getting the elephant out of the room!" European Employability Alliance calls for a more inclusive workforce
“This is not a niche group!”, “ Let’s not still be having the same discussion in 20 years!”, “Let’s get the elephant out of the room!” were just some of the impassioned rallying cries at the Employer Forum on Accessibility in the Workplace last week.
The forum was hosted by the European Alliance on Skills for Employability – a multi-stakeholder partnership led by Microsoft with Adecco, State Street and Cisco. The event brought together representatives from public institutions, corporate sector, NGOs and advocacy groups. All stakeholders affirmed their commitment to accessibility in achieving smart and inclusive growth for greater employment and productivity in Europe in line with the Europe 2020 strategy and it’s flagship initiative The Digital Agenda. Speakers explored the critical role of policy, technology, skills and partnerships in making this a reality in Europe where disabled people are two to three times more likely to be unemployed than non-disabled person. Indeed, according to the OECD, there are no more vulnerable people on the open labour market than ten years ago.
MEP, Adam Kosa, of the Disability Intergroup of the European Parliament raised concern on how people with disability are too often among the lower skilled categories while 16 million well educated workers are needed in the European workforce in the coming years. In bridging this gap, Mr Kosa called for the EU flagship programs to be reinforced with the right level of investment if the employment rate of people with disability is to grow to 75% by 2020. Ilias Iakovidis of EU DG Information Society reiterated the need to push the boundaries of technology for greater e-accessibility in the workplace in addition to enhanced focus on training and education where skills are lacking today. He also highlighted the combined responsibility on innovation as it relates to e-accessibility. Robin Christopherson of Abilitynet UK that has worked with employers and users for many years on e-accessibility, brought the story to life through various demos showing how the right technology and adaptability in the work place can clearly level the playing field.
Awareness raising among employers and businesses was identified by both Adecco and Microsoft as one of the single biggest challenges today. Both corporates shared guides and practices also emphasized the need to partner closely with policy makers and NGOs. Microsoft recently published Accessibility Guides for Businesses, Organizations, and Government Organizations in addition to training resources for developers to create more accessible IT products, services and web sites.
From a policy perspective, the European Disability Forum recognized that the EU directives on Employment and Anti-Discrimination have not had the desired practical impact 10 years on. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities remains the strongest legal framework so far which was ratified by 27 EU states.
“Let’s get the elephant out of the room!” declared Caroline Casey, Founding CEO of NGO Kanchi and the European O2 Ability Awards who made a strong case for approaching the accessibility issue through a business lens. She emphasized the significant size of this demographic and how businesses and employers should value this market and transform good will to good business. Caroline explained how greater diversity leads to richer, better thinking and ultimately benefits a business. Throwing down the gauntlet to businesses not currently serving customers in this area, Caroline warned that their competitors probably would.
Other points voiced during the day covered the growing need for choice of services for people with disability as well as the critical importance of the procurement phase in companies in selecting the best adapted technology and other resources for disabled users. It was felt that employers needed to involve all users in decisions and deployment. Of broader concern is the need to reduce dependency on disability pensions which is the case in many countries today. The reality is that award winning companies often struggle to find people with disabilities with the right skills to hire. A call for more flexibility in the workplace such as teleworking was also made.
All participants and stakeholders will continue to dialogue on accessibility and demonstrate a combined commitment with the support of the European Employability Alliance working towards a more inclusive and diverse workforce in Europe.
The role of ICT and e-accessibility to improve employment opportunities for people with a disability can be seen in this video interview with AbilityNet and Microsoft.