Need to improve access to employment and conditions for disabled people

Government ministries in Estonia have been urged to review their treatment of people with disabilities working in their departments. The instruction follows the findings of a study by the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner that examined how closely ministries comply with the Equal Treatment Act requiring employers to actively help disabled employees. Ministries’ knowledge of the needs of disabled people was found to be poor and in need of serious improvement.

About the study

In 2009, the Equal Treatment Act came into effect in Estonia. It calls on employers to enable people with disabilities to have access to the facilities which will help them participate in the workplace.

Official statistics suggest that around 10.7% of Estonia’s population was disabled as of 1 January 2013. The employment rate among the disabled, however, was just 22.5%. The proportion of the disabled who are at risk of poverty increased from 21.8% in 2009 to 27.8% in 2012.

Against this backdrop, the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner conducted a study, Working possibilities for the disabled in government ministries (in Estonian, 711 KB PDF). It looked at all 10 ministries in Estonia to examine whether they complied with the Equal Treatment Act. The Commissioner’s decision to focus on government ministries was based on the argument that central public administration institutions should be serving as a model for all Estonia’s employers and their compliance with the legislation ought to be exemplarary. All ministries received a questionnaire and responded in writing.

Key findings

Work environment and equipment

The results of the study showed that while most ministries had made some adjustments to enable better access for disabled, there were still some offices that were not user-friendly. In most ministries, basic accessibility requirements had been fulfilled and had lifts, ramps, tracks and stair lifts which disabled people could use. However, there were still some ministries where disabled people only had access to the first floor.

All ministries did give assurances that if the need arose they were ready to make adjustments in their work environment. Nevertheless, awareness of how accessibility impacts on a person’s desire to apply for a job was still low.

Most ministries also said they purchased necessary equipment based on specific employee needs. They said they had not heard about equipment designed on the basis that anyone – regardless of physical ability – could use it without assistance. This, said the study, reflected a lack of exposure to disabled people and their needs.

Action plans to recruit people with disabilities

Except for a few cooperation agreements, none of the ministries had an action plan or programme to recruit, train or offer practice places for disabled people. Ministries argued that they followed the Equal Treatment Act and the equal treatment principle. By this, they meant the best possible candidate was identified based on skills and experience. They said a person’s disability was not part of the selection criteria and specific programmes were therefore not necessary.

Examples of good practice

The Commissioner also explored whether there were any examples of good practice. According to the study, the most popular measure was the use of flexible forms of work. Part-time and remote work were offered by six of the ministries. One ministry cooperated with the North Estonian Association for the Blind and had recruited visually impaired people. One ministry had installed specific features on their floors to help with mobility for visually impaired and another had provided a recording phone for an employee with hearing problems.

Access to information

According to the study, access to public sector institutions’ webpages for people with disabilities was very poor. Improved access to the internet is currently only aimed at people with visual impairments with an emphasis on text font and size, and colour and contrast solutions were ignored. There has been no attempt to improve accessibility for people with hearing problems or learning disabilities. The study found that the webpages of only three ministries offer the user the option of changing the text size.

Support from the Commissioner

Ministries said they would need more guidelines and training on how to improve the current situation. They wanted help, for instance, with how to improve the general work environment to encourage the recruitment of more disabled people. They also wanted guidance on how to implement the Equal Treatment Act.


Based on the results, the Commissioner made a series of recommendations. The Commissioner said these should be taken into account by both public and private sector employers to ensure that people with disabilities could apply for jobs, be recruited and receive training. Employers are advised to:

  • draw up an action plan about how to recruit disabled people;
  • say in job advertisements that disabled people are welcome to apply;
  • make sure disabled people can access and use facilities;
  • provide adequate access for all to the webpages of public sector institutions;
  • make more flexible forms of work available;
  • adjust the work environment so that people with different needs are able to work without assistance and use the facilities independently.

Liina Osila, Praxis Center for Policy Studies

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