Scientists set record straight on mainstreaming disabled workers


Two Antwerp researchers examined the obstacles to the inclusion of workers with disabilities in the workplace and enlisted individuals with disabilities to help them interview managers

“Their strength is our weakness”

Over the next few days, no less than 58 delegations, 2,000 athletes, 1,000 coaches, 2,500 relatives and another 40,000 spectators from across Europe and Asia will descend on Antwerp to attend one of the most prestigious sports events in the world for athletes with disabilities.

The 11-day Special Olympics European Summer Games, which kicks off on 9 September, typically garners much more attention than its accompanying scientific symposium. Drawing some 300 participants from 20 countries, the Special Olympics Scientific Symposium typically focuses on social or legal issues.

This year’s edition addresses a difficult theme – the inclusion of workers with intellectual disabilities in the workplace.

“We generally focus on future forms of employment,” says Bart Cambré, research director at Antwerp Management School and co-ordinator of the symposium, “and the inclusion of people with disabilities is a logical part of that. Most of them are hidden away in sheltered workshops for the handicapped; too few of them get jobs in regular sectors.”

In a new study that will be the key presentation at the symposium, Cambré and fellow researcher Joke Schrauwen studied the opportunities and roadblocks to giving individuals with intellectual disabilities access to normal workplaces.

“There are companies that already employ a few of them because of government programmes and subsidies,” explains Cambré, “but voluntarily incorporating larger groups of the intellectually disabled is a step too far for most companies.”

Unfounded fears

Cambré says that such reticence from companies is typically tied to management fears about the future of their own workers. “Intellectually disabled people cannot perform just any task and will be employed where low-skilled employees are at work,” he says. “There’s always fear among these low-skilled workers that their jobs will be taken from them.”

The Amival workers love to do repetitive work and don’t get bored by it

- Leen Van Eylen

But the researchers discovered that such apprehensions shouldn’t deter employers. “The interviews we conducted show that these fears quickly disappear,” Cambré says. “Low-skilled workers even turn into the biggest ambassadors for inclusion. Most stress the pleasure and fun the intellectually disabled bring to the work floor.”

Janssen Pharmaceutica’s experience with the inclusion of workers with disabilities is a case in point. For almost two years now, eight workers from the sheltered Amival workshop in Turnhout have been spending one-third of their work days in the manufacturing workshop of the powerhouse pharmaceutical company.

Leen Van Eylen, business unit director for liquids and creams, can attest to Cambré’s findings. “Our workers were indeed concerned at first,” she says. “Some saw the arrival of employees from Amival as a threat to their employment. However, they soon realised that the newcomers wouldn’t deal with our core business and would perform tasks the Janssen workers don’t like.”

That sounds less than positive, but Van Eylen continues. “For instance, our workers don’t like to do repetitive jobs. They get bored, which increases the risk of them not paying close attention. The Amival workers love to do repetitive work and don’t get bored by it. Their strength is our weakness.”

In addition, she says, “it is very inspiring for our workers to see how proud the Amival employees are to be allowed to work for Janssen.”

Bringing about a shift

Still, Cambré and Schrauwen’s research shows that the inclusion of workers from sheltered workshops can also create difficulties for supervisors and managers. “Most of the tasks that are allocated to these people are simple and heavily standardised,” says Cambré. “This doesn’t always fit with the particular needs and talents of a person with an intellectual disability. Companies also have to do their part; they need to be more flexible.”

When thinking about people with a handicap, we always focus on their limits

- Bart Cambré

Along with identifying difficulties and ways to overcome them, the Antwerp researchers and the symposium aim to bring about a general shift in how people approach disabilities. “When thinking about people with a handicap, we always focus on their limits and what they are not capable of doing,” says Cambré. “It is striking that even people with disabilities themselves always focus on what they lack. That needs to change. We need to ask: ‘What are their competences? What can they contribute?’”

Cambré says that his own research did just that. “To my knowledge, this is the first scientific research ever in which part of the interviews were conducted by people with intellectual disabilities,” he says. “We needed to do this because they look differently at the same reality and ask the managers questions that we wouldn’t. Our research is better and richer because of their contributions. We hold the pen, but the conclusions were written together with them.”

The day-long event will also include panel discussions on entrepreneurial initiatives to reinvent solidarity and a policymaker’s perspective on inclusion from László Andor, the European Commissioner for Employment. The CEOs of Janssen Pharmaceutica and Coca-Cola Operations Benelux will also talk about their visit to a sheltered workplace.

Antwerp governor Cathy Berx will close the event by offering 10 recommendations for policymakers, companies, organisations and employees, based on the research results.

15 September at Antwerp Management School, Groenplaats 32, Antwerp

Photo: Special Olympics athletes Evy Ploegaerts and André Schepers (right) prepare their video testimonial for the research project