Belgium: Call for better measures to help people with disabilities at work

Measures to help people with disabilities or chronic diseases to participate in the Belgian labour market need to be improved, according to a report. The study, by the University of Leuven, found that support measures are seldom used, are not known about or require a lot of extra administration.

Research based on the 2011 Eurostat Labour Force Survey looked at the participation of people with long term health problems on the Flemish labour market. Formulating policies for this group is a challenge, as it is extremely diverse and people’s participation appears to be influenced by their particular health problem. Only 20% of people with depression are at work, while more than 50% of those with digestive disorders are at work.

Some 52% of people with long-term health problems who are working report that their health hampers them in carrying out their work, with 40% having to work fewer hours.

Some 52% of people with long-term health problems who are working report that their health hampers them in carrying out their work. For almost 40% of people with long-term health problems, these problems have a negative effect on their number of working hours.

People with long-term health problems who are not working cite these problems as the main reason for not working. Other barriers are problems with transport to and from work, the need for personal help, the need for special equipment or an adapted working place, and the need for special work regulations (Table 1).

Table 1: Barriers to working (%)


Non-working people with long-term health problems

Working people with long-term health problems

Number of working hours



Type of work



Transport from home to work



Need for personal help



Need for special equipment/adapted working place



Need for special work regulation



Source: Eurostat Labour Force Survey 2011

The Flemish government seeks to have people with a handicap or chronic disease comprising 3% of the labour market, up from the figure of 1.4% in December 2013. The KU Leuven Public Governance Institute evaluated six existing measures (in Dutch):

  • reasonable adaptations;
  • reserved jobs;
  • advice on recruitment;
  • support for employers;
  • job-coaching;
  • re-integration.

It was found that support measures are seldom used, possibly because people are unaware of them or they require a lot of extra administration.

Reasonable adaptations

People with a disability have a right to expect reasonable adaptations at work to help them do their jobs in the best possible working conditions. These adaptations can include the provision of reading material in braille, a laptop that can work with speech, or organisational adaptations (such as working at home).

However, the study found that despite reasonable adaptations, employing people with a handicap or chronic disease is often done at a loss, creating extra work stress on the colleagues and the employer. Employers also often also see these adaptations as a favour.

The government’s Diversity Policy Cell, which supports the implementation of diversity projects in the different federal public services, is already supporting people with a handicap or chronic disease who are returning to work. Prolonging the period of support and getting regular feedback could be useful. Creating a database of types of reasonable adaptations could also help clarify the sometimes different interpretations of ‘reasonable’.

Reserved jobs

Flemish civil service departments can reserve 1% of their jobs for people with a handicap or chronic disease so that they do not need to compete with able-bodied candidates.

However this measure is rarely used.

  • It can result in lengthy recruitment procedures since – if no suitable candidate is found – the recruitment procedure has to be restarted.
  • Employers like to get the ‘best possible team’: reserved recruitment stops employers from choosing between candidates with and without a handicap or chronic disease.
  • Employers are typically uncertain about hiring a candidate with a handicap or chronic disease because they cannot estimate the impact this will have on the work environment.

Given these complications with the policy, a more general approach could be to first provide greater incentives for employers to recruit persons with a handicap or chronic disease. With that in place, reserved jobs could then represent a more feasible plan.

Advice on recruitment

The Diversity Policy Service encourages civil service departments to have a neutral tone when announcing vacancies. However, some advertisements are still deterring possible candidates. It is also important to be clear about selection procedures. More should be done to publicise vacancies, such as posting them at information fairs dedicated to people with disabilities.

Support for employers

Employers can claim subsidies to pay for adaptations or special equipment (in Flemish) for those workers with a recognised handicap or a chronic disease. 

In reality, however, this support is of little use for the employer, the employee or the employee’s co-workers. In most cases, colleagues have to compensate for the possible loss of financial return. The scheme could be more effective if the financial support were to go directly to the team in which the employee with a handicap or chronic disease is working.


The Flemish public employment service (VDAB), provides individual job coaches for new employees with a disability or chronic disease. This measure is not yet widely known, but it has a lot of potential, and people using it are reacting very positively. Individual coaching should be promoted more actively and could also be used for other types of employees.

Reintegration measures

The Flemish public sector has different reintegration measures for employees who have been absent for a long time due to a chronic disease. Depending on the type of disability, the employee can be given a different job in the same department, or even in another department. The most commonly used reintegration measures are part-time work, a new job description and reasonable adaptations.

Reintegration is not always carried out smoothly. Motivation is sometimes low for the employer as well as the employee. However, it should be possible to make the employee’s restart more gradual – for instance, by working one day a week to begin with. The mutual expectations of employer and employee should be clear, with the help of consultation from the company medical officer.



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