The prosperity and economic stability of the whole society depends on the way we, each of us, relate to the situations we encounter in society. Every time we choose to turn a blind eye to the inequities and injustices that occur, we tacitly agree to all those behaviors and abuses that we believe we “sanction.” The only way to really do this is to take action. Let’s get involved and make, each of us, the changes we want to see transposed at the level of society.
Today, on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we continue the discussion about #InvestmentForGood and we focus on two particularly important aspects for improving the quality of life of people with disabilities: accessibility and inclusion.
Where do we start?
According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, approximately 850,000 people with disabilities live in Romania. More than 97% are uninstitutionalized, and almost 785,000 are adults. Moreover, about 45% of people with disabilities suffer from some form of physical disability, which could allow them to be full-time, active citizens and to live with dignity, if we managed to provide them with all the necessary conditions to do so.
Too many times, when we talk about people with disabilities, we only talk about the costs associated with the conditions they are in and not about the benefits we could get if we managed to make the most of the potential that these people have. Their disabilities are not their fault, and we should think twice every time we make judgments and prejudices about the situations in which people with disabilities find themselves.
For a start, I would like to turn our attention to the pragmatic part of this situation. Romanian society treats people with disabilities in a way that is not only inappropriate, but also very harmful from a human, social and even economic point of view. Under the umbrella of a more generic protection, we give many of them financial benefits that, it is true, are useful to them, but at the same time we cancel their other chances to get involved, to do more for themselves and even for others, to reach their full potential. We have been failing for years to come up with real solutions for all the people who suffer from any form of disability. Until recently, in Romania, a person with disabilities who received financial support from the state could not work in parallel without this financial support being stopped. The good part is that the legislation has been changed and this is not happening anymore. Even so, we still have a long way to go until we can effectively integrate all the people who can and want to work in the labor market and until we get to enjoy the financial benefits of this integration.
What do we have to do?
Integration into work does not necessarily mean the obligation for a certain person to physically travel to work. The situation created by the Covid-19 pandemic showed us that it can be done differently. That employees may be able to work from home, be safe and, at the same time, exercise their duties and continue to be active citizens. Therefore, to contribute to the state budget. Why can’t we extend and adapt this principle to develop inclusion policies for people with disabilities?
Such a person, integrated in the field of work means much more than a human who works, and the results, including financial ones, of this integration will be far beyond the effort made for their employment/ occupation. We are talking, first of all, about the human factor. An employee who has the chance to do what they like and feel really useful will enjoy a much better quality of life. Secondly, if we talk about the financial benefits, we cannot disregard the fact that the person employed will have an income in addition to the income provided by the state, and thus, will have a greater purchasing power and the money will re-enter the national economy. Indirectly, making working conditions more flexible and improving legislation so that people with disabilities can be supported also supported at the legislative level will expand the labor pool and will provide additional financial benefits. Let’s just think about how much money we lost when big investors reduced their activity or even withdrawn from our market, when they did not find available labor. Now, let’s imagine what the situation might have looked like if we had been flexible and open to inclusion and diversity at the time.
Last but not least, another very important aspect is to evaluate the true qualities and abilities of each person, when choosing a career. Each person has their own value, and whether or not they have a disability should not stop us from discovering that value. The time has come not to base the activity of people with disabilities on stereotypes and popular beliefs. No trade or profession is specifically intended for a particular type of disability, just as no trade or profession is forbidden for people with disabilities.
The benefits, much more than investments
Under current legislation, entities with more than 50 employees are required to employ at least 4% of people with disabilities. Those who do not do so must pay a tax equal to the amount of a gross minimum wage per country multiplied by the number of places for disabled people who are not employed in that organization. This money goes to the state budget and is used to cover the current expenses of the society. Basically, the employer does not directly benefit from these amounts, and they give a low return compared to the potential they would have. Ideally, if all employers would respect this law, these amounts paid to the state would constructively turn into the salaries of people with disabilities employed. And that would mean a much greater gain from an economic and social point of view.
All these benefits would be well over the two billion euros we spend annually to support people with disabilities. These are direct and indirect revenues that would be redirected to the state budget but also amounts of money that would return to the economy in various forms, often as payments for current expenses, therapies and leisure activities. So we could create a ‘positive spiral’. And finally, we will learn to build, by associating disability with opportunities for all of us and not with the eternal… ‘costs’.
What can we do?
The solutions we have to solve these situations are as simple as they are necessary. First and foremost, we have to understand that change is needed at all levels. That you can’t get different results when you use the same methods, under the same conditions. And to discuss applied solutions, I think the most important thing is to start with education. But not that generic ‘education’ of others or the state, but of each of us. The time has come to understand that a disability is not a reason to restrict a child’s fundamental right to education. There are, at the moment, very few situations in which children with disabilities enjoy a treatment appropriate to their needs, even when it comes to education. We need mainstream schools that accept and properly integrate children with disabilities into school communities, we need appropriate therapy programs and educational centers for children who cannot attend mainstream education, and we must learn how to treat them with empathy and professionalism.
Going further, towards the labor market, we need to understand that a disability does not necessarily mean the inability to work and live an active and independent life. We need measures to encourage employers to develop inclusion policies in their organizations so that the employability of these people increases. We have seen in recent months that we can successfully implement systems to support work from home, and the telecommunications infrastructure in Romania that allows the existence of one of the highest internet speeds is also useful in this direction.
Last but not least, we need effective social protection measures for all those people with severe and very serious disabilities. From recovery centers, real home care services, to centers where people can be temporarily institutionalized, investment is needed so that these people can benefit from humane, dignified and 2020 treatment.
People with disabilities have been treated in terms of conditions for which they are not guilty for far to long. It is time to understand that all those costs involved in the social protection of these people can not only be covered but we can even obtain additional financial benefits when we are open and willing to be flexible and look for solutions. The right of every person to be able to reach their potential in their country is not negotiable, and people with disabilities are full-time citizens, they are people with the same needs, hopes and abilities as any of us. Let’s not forget: when we deny or violate the rights of a person with disabilities to dignity, we deny our rights, the rights of all to life and prosperity.