DISABILITY AND EMPLOYMENT: NDA CONFERENCE

by Mary de Paor

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The NDA’s Fourth Annual Disability Research Conference was held at the Great Southern Hotel, Dublin Airport, on Tuesday 11 October 2005. The theme was ‘Disability and employment: What the research tells us’. As far as the plenary sessions were concerned, the research didn’t appear to offer much that is relevant to employment for people with intellectual disability, but perhaps that statement is unfair, given the NDA’s broad brief across the full spectrum of disabilities. Eithne Fitzgerald of the NDA gave background data for Irish people with disabilities, concluding with the NDA recommendations for a minimum target of raising the numbers of people with disabilities in employment by 13,000- They suggest increasing recruitment in both public and private sectors, informing potential employers about grants and supports and tackling benefit traps to make work pay.

Presentations by John P. Martin, OECD Director for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, and Donal McAnaney of the Rehab Group, were concerned with acquired and ‘emerging’ disabilities—ill-health or absence-from-work leading to early retirement or dependence on disability benefit. Both of them emphasised the need for alert employers to support people while they were still in work, and for a flexible policy framework to encourage return to work whenever possible and to avoid over-reliance on disability benefit structures.

Another report, given by Brenda Gannon of the Economic and Social Research Institute, summarised ‘disability and labour market outcomes in Ireland’—based primarily on data from the Quarterly National Household Survey 2002 and Living in Ireland Survey 2001. The hardly-surprising ESRI conclusions were that: having a disability decreases probability of working; being out of work is associated with higher poverty risk; early intervention after onset of disability is important; and there is a need for strategy to increase employment level for people with disabilities, and for a large-scale survey on disability to include information on labour market outcomes.

Tom Ronayne and Tony Tyrrell of Work Research Co-operative added qualitative insights to the statistics and called for the development of a proper strategy to improve the present picture, where in 2005 general employment in Ireland has risen 4.9 per cent, with the highest year-on-year increase on record, and where the employment levels of people with disabilities have disimproved in relative terms.

Once again the NDA proved the fallacy that there’s no such thing as a free lunch (for conference attendees, anyway—the speakers and NDA personnel had obviously worked very hard in preparation and presentation). And after the meal, there was just time to view three poster sessions. These included Rehab’s Optiwork Programme, an EU sponsored project to provide an assessment tool for the effectiveness of current policies and strategies for the employment of people with disabilities; The Dublin Employment Pact Initiative, ‘Equal at work’, to improve opportunities for those who experience inequalities and discrimination in the labour market; and Bank of Ireland’s ‘I Can’ programme which is designed to facilitate and support the recruitment of persons with a disability within the Group.

The positivity of the poster sessions were echoed in a presentation by Ilene Zeitzer from Disability Policy Solutions (New York), who instanced successful employment promotion programmes/policies, in the US, Sweden, Brazil and the UK.

Parallel sessions during the afternoon focused on different areas of disability—mental health, physical access issue, etc. Bob McCormack presented the results of a piece of research at St Michael’s House which surveyed 42 people within their service who worked in Dublin supermarkets. They were concerned with job development, motivation and rotation of tasks. They found that in general the individuals enjoyed their work, but were engaged in only a small number of tasks in relation to those which might have been expected to be included within their work area. Although, when asked, they said they would be interested in assuming other duties, they had not declared this wish to their employers or job coach. Supervisors could see more problems than opportunities in the workplace, but were not averse to providing further job training for the individuals they employed. The researchers noted a level of complacency among employers and agency staff (e.g. job coaches) and a lack of continuing liaison between agency and employer when individuals had been successfully placed for a number of months/years. The supported employment model required more resources to facilitate task diversification and skill development, with an improved level of partnership between employers and agency support personnel. A secondary issue of concern was that if persons were encouraged to work longer hours, they might succumb to the benefits trap.

Sinead Browne and Patrick Nash of Cope Foundation (Cork) presented the results of a survey on personal outcomes and supported employment within QDS (Cope’s sheltered occupational service, formerly Help Industries). Of the 65 Clients of QDS who were interviewed, 37 did not express a wish to avail of supported employment; 28 did want supported employment. Of the latter, 17 clients had job placements and 11 were awaiting placement. The main themes emerging about the perceived benefits of their job concerned greater self-esteem, income and variety. The reasons given by those who had not chosen supported employment included feelings of insecurity, parental influence and loss of their sheltered occupational service. The study concluded that while supported employment has major impacts on people’s lives, it is not everyone’s choice; sheltered occupational services also fill a need.

At the end of the day’s long agenda, Angela Kerins, Chairperson of the NDA, announced their Research Promotion Scheme Grants. Among those relevant to intellectual disability were:

  • €10,000 to namhi to explore the changing character of sheltered and supported employment.
  • €12,000 to St Michael’s House and Prosper Fingal for their joint ‘My Rights’project.
  • €13,500 for Wexford Area Partnership’s project on employment opportunities for people with disabilities and the need to identify training needs.
  • €12,000 for the Institute for the Study of Learning Difficulties, TCD, to evaluate the impact of inclusive third-level education for students and their families.
  • €8,600 for Gheel Autism Services to explore person-centred planning processes in their services.

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