Survey on the Employment of Blind and Partially Sighted People in Europe (2001)

Based on the European Blind Union (EBU) report concerned(ed. 2005, Herbert ten Thij)

This survey is intended to update and supplement existing data on :

  • the number of visually impaired people in employment and the numbers of job seekers,
  • the benefits available to visually impaired people during training or to job seekers ;
  • the services available to visually impaired people or employers to provide equipment and other forms of support; and to draw a reliable picture of the balance between mainstream and special employment opportunities in Europe.

The information required is needed to be able to develop training and employment opportunities for visually impaired men and women.

This survey is done relying upon the goodwill and expertise of EBU member organisations. Their collaboration has made it possible for the survey to be designed, the questionnaires distributed, the results analysed and the report prepared.

The survey updates a prior report produced in 1995 by the EBU Commission on Rehabilitation, Vocational Training and Employment and that was designed by Tony Aston and Steve Cooper and updated by Philippe Chazal, Chairman of that Commission. Its scope is substantial as it covers a wide range of issues, including statistics, legislation, benefits and similar topics.

The questionnaire devised in 1995 was slightly amended and circulated to EBU member countries in early 2001, and results were collected and collated in spring of the same year. This survey is widely based on the 1995 report, both in terms of structure and form. Where relevant, whole sections of the previous report have been kept unchanged in this paper.

Responses were received from the following EBU member organisations : Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden and UK.

The results of this document provide a diverse picture of the employment situation of visually impaired people in Europe. Although there is variation in the criteria for registration as a blind or partially sighted person in different countries, it does seem probable that many European countries are underestimating the prevalence of visual impairment in the population. This remains thus a key issue that needs to be addressed also.

It is interesting to note the extent to which visually impaired people in EBU member countries are increasingly accessing mainstream employment opportunities.

Respondents frequently provided numerical estimates. The analysis of the information derived from such answers needs to be treated with some caution. In any case, the employment sheets provided in this document are collected through sources other than the questionnaire, which provide a comprehensive picture of the employment situation of blind and visually impaired people in : Denmark, Finland, France, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and the UK.

Procedure

In early January 2001, the European Blind Union conducted an update survey of EBU members, the aims of which were as follows :

  • Update and supplement statistics concerning the employment of blind and partially-sighted people,
  • Collate information on the financial benefits available to blind and partially sighted people of working age in EBU member countries,
  • Collate information on incentives to promote the employment of blind and partially sighted people of working age.

A questionnaire was sent to all EBU member organisations with a request that, when completed, these be sent to the Office of EBU which co-ordinated the exercise.The analysis of the completed questionnaires was conducted by the Office of EBU, with the final report summarising results being completed in spring 2001.

1. Response and performance of the questionnaire

1. A total of 17 EBU member organisations out of 44 returned the questionnaire (38 %). Respondents are as follows : Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

2. Overall, as is told in the report, respondents seem to have dealt with the questionnaire with reasonable effectiveness. Unfortunately, no precise overall data were published regarding the numbers of the questionnaires sent and returned. However, the majority of the responses received contained answers to all questions. In this sense, the survey appeared to have performed well, given that the questionnaire was almost entirely \'qualitative\' - most of the questions were \'open\' and required a written/narrative response as opposed to the insertion of statistics or response to coded and closed questions. This accounts for the fact that responses did vary quite considerably in their extent, content and level of detail. Some respondents provided concise, often empirical information; others supplied substantive narratives.

3. Analysis of Results

Due to the nature of the questionnaire, statistical analysis producing figures has not been executed as such. Instead, key facts have been extracted from the survey to produce indicative trends.

2. Key facts

2.1 Working age blind and partially sighted people
2.1.1 Respondents to the survey report a total of 433 750 blind and partially sighted people of working age.
2.1.2 Perhaps the most important conclusion to draw in this area concern information gaps.

Many respondents were unable to offer precise figures concerning the actual numbers of working age blind, and partially sighted in particular, people. In this sense, the statistics gathered by the survey must not be treated as an accurate gauge of the numbers of working age blind and partially sighted people. These information gaps, which are due to either respondents\' inability to access statistics or to the non-existence of these statistics, only confirmed data already available through other sources.

2.2 Unemployed working age blind and partially sighted people
2.2.1
n

Respondents reported a total of 100 000 unemployed blind and partially sighted peopleof working age.

2.2.2

It is clear for reasons summarised in 2.1 above that these figures are not definitive and moreover are illustrative of information gaps.

If we limit our analysis to the Nordic countries, the information supplied is quantitatively and qualitatively satisfactory. It reveals very high unemployment rates amongst the blind and partially sighted population of an average 60 % (Denmark : 69 %, Finland : 55 %, Norway : 68 %, Poland : 87 %). Sweden stands as a remarkable exception in this gloomy picture : only 5.5 %.

The situation is no better in Germany, with 72 % unemployed. This may be due to the overall bad employment situation in the former Democratic Republic, but unfortunately we do not have break-down unemployment figures between the two former republics to confirm this.

With 4.2 % unemployment, blind and partially-sighted people in Spain seem to enjoy an enviable situation. This is mainly due to the fact that selling the famous ONCE Lottery tickets still provides an abundant source of employment.

Information on Hungary shows an unemployment rate of 77 %. This only confirms other sources of information indicating that the employment situation for the blind andpartially-sighted in Central and Eastern Europe has been badly affected by the transition period towards market economy. The visually disabled used to be employed in factories run by organisations of the blind, but many of these have had to close down because they could not withstand mounting fierce competition on the open market.

2.3 General unemployment versus visually impaired people\'s unemployment
2.3.1

Here again, a number of respondents were unable to report a figure in response to this question.

2.3.2

However, data collected give a clear indication that blind and partially sighted people are considerably worse off than the general population.

% Unemployment for visually impaired % General unemployment
Croatia 50 20
Cyprus 32 3,5
Denmark 69 5,2
Finland 55 11
Germany 72.8 8.9
Hungary 77 6
Norway 68 2.5-2.8
Poland 87 16
Spain 4.2 13.61
Sweden 5.5 3-4
2.3.3

Interpolation of results provided in this area suggests the following :

  1. Figures reported in the survey concerning the numbers of working age blind and partially sighted people and the numbers unemployed are only very broadly indicative, given problems respondents clearly encountered in accessing accurate data.
  2. It can however be assumed that, as shown in the table in 2.3.2, blind and partially sighted people are across the board much worse off than the general population in terms of unemployment, in spite of some noteworthy exceptions (Spain, Sweden).
2.4 Major obstacles to employment

The following obstacles to the employment of blind and partially sighted people were identified :

  • Sight and health condition : mentioned by 9 out of 17 respondents. It is the major cause of unemployment for 3 respondents (Hungary, Spain, UK)
  • Disability pension : mentioned by 6 respondents. Major cause of unemployment for 1 respondent (Luxembourg)
  • General unemployment : mentioned by 8 respondents. Major cause of unemployment for 5 respondents (Croatia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Poland)
  • Low job qualification and experience : mentioned by 6 respondents. Major cause of unemployment for 2 respondents (France, Greece)
  • Employers\' prejudiced attitude : mentioned by 4 respondents. Major cause of unemployment for 2 respondents (Cyprus, Sweden)
  • Poor legislation : mentioned by one respondent.
  • Family reasons : mentioned by 3 respondents.
  • Structural transformation of the economy : mentioned by one respondent.

The above information is of great value as it helps identify what should be the focus of policies to improve the employment situation of blind and partially-sighted people. However, and because of the information gap signalled above, further analysis is needed to confirm the impact of the causes of unemployment identified. It seems for example that disability pensions are an obstacle to the employment of blind and partially sighted people ; but does this mean that they should be taken away altogether? This of course would have a tragic effect on those blind and partially-sighted who, although they are job ready, can simply not find a job. The EBU explicitly points out that:

  • Blindness has always been, and remains, a major disability, and any suggestion that it is not must be immediately and forcefully challenged.
  • When providing social security benefits for blind people, a distinction must be drawn between the two types of allowance set out in c and d below:
  • If a blind person is unemployed, he needs an allowance to enable him to meet ordinary living expenses, for example, food, lodging, clothing, and so on. If he becomes employed, it may be reasonable for this allowance to be reduced or suspended, depending on the nature of the employment and the wages derived from it.
  • In any case, he should be entitled to an allowance to compensate for his blindness, including the expenses which a blind person has to incur which are additional to those incurred by a sighted person. He will often have to pay for help ; he will often have to spend more on cleaning clothes ; he may to spend more on food, as he cannot easily choose cheaper items. He needs special equipment, and may have to pay for a guide to accompany him on public transport. These are just some examples of the additional cost of blindness. Because this type of allowance is compensatory, it should not be reduced or suspended if the person finds employment, or has financial resources of its own.

3. Financial benefits for visually impaired people

3.1

In addressing this topic, the questionnaire comprised a succession of open questions. Respondents were asked for a description of :

  1. Financial benefits available to unemployed visually impaired people who have never had a job,
  2. The extent to which benefits are available to support visually impaired people when in employment,
  3. The extent to which such benefits are taxable,
  4. Support and training schemes made available by employers to employees who have become disabled.
3.2 Response

The nature of response to these questions was very varied. All respondents reported diverse forms of financial benefits : in addition to generic benefits (relating to retirement, unemployment allowance, income support or some other form of pension), most respondents reported that benefits specific to disability were on offer in their countries.These ranged from invalidity based pensions to working disability benefits and specifically blind allowances.

3.3 Continuation of benefit when employed

The majority of respondents reported that benefits continue to be payable when a visually impaired person becomes employed. Where this is the case, it seems clear that benefits are in the form of disability allowances and are of a modest nature, as opposed to full-scale disability benefits intended to provide full income support where a visually impaired person is unable to work.

3.4 Benefits and Taxation

Here, a somewhat confused picture emerges from the survey. Roughly half of respondents reporting benefits continuing into employment report that these benefits are taxable. Similarly, about half report that they are not subject to tax (same as in 1995).

3.5 Employers\' provisions for disabled employees

Information gathered under this item is very contrasted. Employers\' provisions include mainly leave for adjustment and retraining, and re-employment in suitable post. Leave for adjustment and retraining is statutory or recommended good practice in approximately half of responding countries. Requirement to provide re-employment in suitable post is less common practice. It is noteworthy that, in Sweden, employers must adapt the workstations to the effect that they are accessible to every one ; an employee cannot be laid off before his employer makes reasonable efforts to reemploy him/her. As regards employers providing financial support after occurrence of disability, only two respondents (Nordic countries) report that, although employers do not provide direct financial support, they share the cost of rehabilitation with relevant state agencies.

4. Incentives to promote employment for disabled people

4.1

All respondents report schemes/incentives beyond training and benefits to assist people with disabilities into employment or sheltered employment. Analysis of the substantial narratives often provided in response to these questions suggests that many schemes are generic : they are aimed either at people in long-term and/or structural unemployment, or at people with a general disability as opposed to visual impairment.

4.2 Employment legal obligation and job quotas
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Eight respondents report some form of legal obligation to employ disabled/blind people or job quota schemes within their countries. In some cases, legal obligation only falls on the public sector (e.g. Croatia). Three respondents report job quota schemes for visually impaired telephonists (80 % of telephony posts are reserved to blind telephonists in Greece).Six respondents, including 3 Nordic countries, report no such schemes.The extent to which these provisions are implemented remains to be seen. For example, in Spain, the Law for the Social Integration of the Disabled establishes that in all companies with more than 50 workers, 2 % of the payroll should be made up of disabled workers (blind or others). However, this law establishes no measures whatsoever in the case of its non-fulfilment. As a result, and in spite of complaints from disability organisations, this law has been systematically infringed by employers.

4.3 Government assistance to employers

Most respondents report government schemes to assist employers to employ disabled people. Governments contributions towards, or total coverage of, adapted workstations emerge as the most recurrent mechanism to that effect.

4.4 Sheltered economic sector, and related benefits, incentives and advantages
4.4.1

Only 4 respondents do not report a sheltered economic sector. Some respondents have provided a detailed description of such schemes indicating a considerable range of financial benefits and incentives. Some are cash subventions from the government to sheltered schemes, others are in the form of concessions such as tax rebates, the appointment of specialist advisers on the employment of the disabled, wage subsidy from local authorities and policies relating to the marketing of goods, products and services produced by sheltered operations

5. Employment of blind and partially-sighted women

As expected, the level of feedback in this area is disappointingly low. Only Ireland was able to provide some information which may also apply to some other EU countries: the primary difference between blind men and women at work seems to be that male blind people tend to have more definite career advancement opportunities - some have risen to levels of chief executives and assistant bank managers, and many are employed in the computer industry. As regards blind women, the general trend tends to be in administration and in telephony, with a few exceptions that are working in the civil service.

6. Concluding remarks

It appears from the survey that the employment situation of the blind and partially-sighted in Europe has not evolved dramatically over the last ten years.

6.1

Statistics on disabled people in general, let alone special disability groups, are still tremendously difficult to gather. Blindness organisations do not have the financial resources, nor do they have the expertise, to perform quality investigations in this area.

6. 2

There have been no major innovations in terms of incentives to employment of disabled/blind people. Traditional recipes (e.g. job quotas) are still with us, but this may be because they have yielded good results in the past. As can be seen already from theprevious table (ad 2.2.1), the blind and partially-sighted are much worse off in terms of unemployment than the general population. This infers that positive discrimination measures are needed to curb the unemployment and the marginalization of the blind. It may sound odd to speak of positive discrimination, whereas the disability movement played an active role in the adoption of an EU Non-Discrimination Directive on Employment. In fact, non discrimination and positive discrimination are not opposed ; on the contrary they should be seen as complementary. Unfortunately, it is much too early to try and assess the impact of the directive. A few more years will be needed before a good assessment can be made.