Estonia: Improving work opportunities for people with disabilities
Reforms to legislation passed in early 2016 aim to promote the participation of people with disabilities in the the labour market. However, a recent study shows that government ministries and other state institutions made limited progress between 2013 and 2015 in increasing employment opportunities for this disabled people and adapting workplaces to their needs.
Close to 150,000 people in Estonia have a disability, representing 10.9% of the population. The employment rate in this group is 25% and, although it has risen in recent years, it is low compared with the 77% employment rate for people without disabilities. Policy on incapacity to work has been reformed in early 2016 with the aim of activating those with partial loss of work capacity and supporting their participation in the labour market.
Study on accessibility in the public sector
In 2013, the Equal Treatment and Gender Equality Commissioner conducted a short study (in Estonian) on employment opportunities for disabled people in government ministries. (The Equal Treatment and Gender Equality Commissioner is an independent and impartial expert who monitors compliance with legislation and provides support and guidance in the areas of equal treatment and gender equality.) In 2015, the Commissioner repeated the study to examine whether any improvements had been achieved since 2013. The second study also included state institutions such as the parliament, the National Audit Office and the Bank of Estonia The results of this study have been published in the report Creating working opportunities for people with disabilities in ministries and constitutional institutions (in Estonian).
Adjustments to work environment and working time
The study found that most of the ministries and all the other state institutions have made some kind of adjustments to their working environment and have introduced flexible working arrangements. The adjustments include ensuring at least minimal accessibility to buildings and floors (using lifts, ramps and tracks, for instance) and providing special tools for performing tasks (such as computer programmes). Adjustments varied from organisation to organisation, although all said they had made and were ready to make further adaptations based on specific needs. However, the report concluded that, compared with 2013, the overall situation has not changed.
Access to information
The 2013 study showed that online access to the ministries’ web pages for those with disabilities was very poor. Although some web pages allowed the user to change the text font and size, other suggested improvements had not been implemented. In 2015, all the ministries’ web pages met the WCAG 2.0 accessibility criteria, but some web pages published by the other state institutions still did not offer options to make them more accessible to disabled users.
Recruiting people with disabilities
None of the organisations saw a need to mention in job advertisements that disabled people were welcome to apply; as in 2013, there were still no action plans or programmes for recruiting employees or trainees with disabilities. Some organisations said this was because they did not need such programmes, others that they did not know how to develop them. Only one ministry had paid special attention to disabled people while developing a new human resources strategy. None of the organisations had any recruitment targets for people with disabilities even though the government has announced that public sector organisations will hire 1,000 people with disabilities.
Support from the Commissioner
As in 2013, the organisations said they valued help from specialists and the Commissioner but added that they need more guidelines, consultations and training to improve the work environment for people with disabilities and to develop plans and programmes to recruit them.
The Commissioner made seven recommendations, valid for both public and private sector employers, designed to improve work opportunities for people with disabilities. Six of the suggestions were made in 2013, including the need to draw up action plans for recruitment, improve accessibility to facilities and information, adjust the work environment, and provide flexible working.
The study found that the organisations questioned did not know how many employees with a disability were working for them; this was because this information was seen as health data and therefore personal, meaning the employer had no right to access it. The Commissioner’s seventh recommendation was that these organisations should collect anonymous personal information (such as disability or religion) on employees and job applicants. However, the study did not provide any guidelines on how to do this.
Initiative for employers
The Access For All initiative (in Estonian) was launched in September 2015 with the aim of motivating business owners and organisations to improve accessibility to their facilities, services and information. Those that do will be entitled to display an official badge or logo indicating that their facilities are accessible to all people. The initiative, developed in cooperation with the Commissioner and civil society organisations, acknowledges that adaptation is a process and that even small steps are valued. Therefore, the Access for All badge will be supplemented with similar formal recognition for organisations that have developed dedicated access for people in wheelchairs or for those with vision, hearing or learning disabilities. However, the quality standards and actual accessibility will not be monitored or inspected for compliance; the scheme is based on organisations acting in good faith. By December, 18 organisations had joined the initiative, including educational institutions, state enterprises, public sector organisations, restaurants and shops.
The Ministry of Social Affairs is drafting amendments to several laws to improve working life for people with disabilities (in Estonian). The Equal Treatment Act is first on the list. Currently, the Act prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, age, disability or sexual orientation in relation to work and education. Discrimination on grounds of nationality, race or colour is prohibited in these areas, too, but also extends to accessing social welfare, social security, healthcare and other services. This gives the impression that discrimination on grounds of disability is prohibited only in some areas and also restricts the Commissioner’s ability to deal with complaints of discrimination if the circumstances do not match those provided for in the Act.
There are also plans to give the Commissioner extra powers. These include the right to exercise supervision over Estonia’s implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the right to go to court on behalf of a victim of discrimination, which should encourage more people to seek help.