We are all aware of the fact that the disabled face significant difficulties in the labor market, but we underestimate them. While many inclusive measures have been implemented, the fact of the matter is that we can do better. How? This is the question behind the book Handicap et travail [Disability and Work] (Presses de Sciences Po) authored by Anne Revillard, a researcher at the Sociological Observatory of Change (OSC) and at the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Study of Public Policies (LIEPP).
To answer it she first posited that new policy creation requires knowledge of existing policies. This notably helped identify blind spots, such as job quality.
The idea was to answer a call from the “Securing professional paths” chair at Sciences Po, which wanted to determine the state of affairs in workplace disability, and more particularly the research devoted to this topic. I took a multidisciplinary approach, considering works in sociology, economics, law, social psychology, history, and political science.
But there was no way that this work was going to remain confidential. With a small team, we immediately worked to disseminate the information to a large audience, and we created a website that provided reading cards drafted in French that drew on the international scientific literature. Five major themes were highlighted: discrimination, professional integration, the experience of disability at work, job retention, protected work, and supported work.
Yes, in this book I share my observation that the disabled are doubly marginalized – in relation to employment and in employment. First, the marginalization in relation to employment is expressed in the high inactivity and unemployment rates that you mention: by comparison, the figures for the general population (64% of active workers and 10% of unemployed).
It is important to add that unemployed people with disabilities are on average older, less skilled, and more likely to be in long-term unemployment. Second, the disabled are marginalized in employment: the disabled population is less educated than the general population, and often holds lower skilled, less prestigious, and less well paid positions; the disabled most often work part-time.
It’s a thorny question. The law of 11 February 2005 on equal rights and opportunities, participation, and citizenship for the disabled defines disability as “any limitation of activity or restriction of participation in social life experienced by people in their environment due to a substantial, long-term, or permanent alteration of one or several physical, sensorial, mental, cognitive, or psychological functions, to multiple disabilities, or to a disabling health issue” (art. 1). Beyond this legal definition, the characterization of disability is the subject of many debates that have important implications for public action: for example, should it be considered as a separate population category, or as a continuum – a variation in human functioning between disability and ability? In all cases, and especially when thought of in terms of employment policy, it is essential to bear in mind the wide range of disability situations: according to the type of disability, its visibility, when it occurred, etc.
One of the problems is that current public action consists of a layering of measures that sometimes have contradictory orientations and involve many actors… These policies are hard to understand and are sorely in need of evaluation: it is currently unclear what is working and what is not working. A policy as central as the employment requirement, which consists of a 6% quota for disabled workers, has never been the subject of a systematic impact assessment.
Pending specific assessments, some lessons can already be drawn from the existing research. First, because the obstacles to employment exist on both the demand and supply sides, interventions are needed on both fronts: training and employment assistance on the one hand, and employer engagement on the other. Next, on the supply side, the implementation of anti-discrimination laws in countries like the United States and United Kingdom shows that it does not suffice to prohibit discrimination to end it. More interventionist policies are needed. From this perspective, the French tradition of a proactive policy for employers is an asset, but it must be better evaluated to determine how to make it a more effective tool.
It is striking to see, for example, that the question of professional promotion is simply absent from the public action in most of the research: this is a particularly revealing oversight in the way workplace disability is considered or not considered. It’s as if the simple fact of having a job is a sufficient response. What about workplace satisfaction and opportunities for professional advancement? I think these questions should fall within the remit of public action questions.
The question of disability is actually most often approached through the prism of representations. Without negating the importance of this issue (stereotypes of the disabled are a major obstacle to their accessing and keeping jobs), it is important to ensure that the rhetoric of “perspective change” does not avert the gaze from the more structural and sometimes very material changes that are needed: providing accessibility, defining clear procedures in terms of making and monitoring arrangements, flexibility in the spatiotemporal organization of work for all, etc. Just like transformations needed to combat gender inequalities, the “normalization” of workplace disability requires an in-depth transformation of organizational norms.
Interview by Bernard Cornimboeuf, OSC
* The Chair is managed by a foundation of public utility :”La Fondation du risque”. It brings together researchers from Sciences Po and INSEE’s Group of National Schools of Economics and Statistics. Yann Algan and Pierre Cahuc ensure the scientific direction. Its mission is to identify and measure the effectiveness of regulatory policies, through multidisciplinary approaches. Many partners support its action, such as Pôle emploi, Unédic or Randstad.
** Célia Bouchet and Mathéa Boudinet worked as research assistants on this project. Bernard Corminboeuf, Edouard Crocq and Andreana Khristova provided support for scientific valorisation.
Anne Revillard is Associate Professor of sociology at Sciences Po, OSC and LIEPP Shes examines how gender and disability inequality systems are transformed into interaction through public policies that target them.