By Ilinca Gradea
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018
Today, approximately 300,000 people living with a disability are unemployed in Romania. This is an astounding figure representing more than 50% of disabled persons deemed capable of working.
More distressing is the fact that legislation has been adopted to ensure the right of people with disabilities to work in a non-discriminatory environment. This law, also known as Law 448/2006, cites that all institutions, private or public, with a minimum of 50 employees, must respect and fill a quota of 4% in terms of employing individuals with a disability. If this percentage is not met, employers are mandated to pay the government a sum equal to 50% of the minimum wage for each of these assigned positions that are considered vacant.
Thus far, however, most companies have preferred the latter option of paying a wage, to the detriment of inclusion. While the motivation for this is unclear, one must consider the prevailing discriminatory attitudes and misinformation prevalent in society. For some employers, the word ‘disability’ sounds like a burden that will impede productivity and slow down economic growth. Not only is this belief totally unfounded, but the International Labor Organization (ILO) has published a factsheet listing some of the business benefits that come with hiring people with disabilities. In fact, by creating an inclusive work environment, you not only improve your companies’ reputation, but you may also increase teamwork and the general morale and wellbeing of your entire workforce.
For too long now, employers have shunned people with disabilities as potential employees without even knowing what they can bring to the table, focusing on their limits instead of their strengths. In Romania, people with disabilities represent an overlooked market of approximately 800,000 people. Ignoring this market segment may mean not only losing the disabled consumer, but also their family and friends too. In an era where companies praise thinking outside the box, all voices ought to be included for greater diversity and creativity. People with disabilities represent an untapped resource of skills and talent, and thus their participation can benefit all parties involved.
Determined to take matters into his own hands, Cosmin Jurcan, an entrepreneur, political consultant and motivational speaker, decided to organize the 2018 Disability Summit at Romania’s Parliament on March 20th-21st. Having a disability himself, Jurcan has been vocal in his criticism of the lack of action by stakeholders (government officials and employers); however, he has also made it a point to invite the latter to the summit to have an open discussion and foster a sustainable collaborative relationship.
The location of the event was spectacular and luxurious to say the least – the Romanian Parliament, the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. A woman I met during the networking break told me: “I was surprised that there would be an event about disability here, out of all places. At first, I was deeply honored to be invited but then I realized that it’s about time they include us in the discussion.”
It was indeed about time. Cosmin Jurcan highlighted inclusion and social connectedness as the main themes of the event. The openness of the discussions and the diversity of both the audience and the speakers created an environment of acceptance and empathy.
Some speakers did not have a disability but were involved in one way or another with the issues at hand. This was the case for parliamentary deputy member, Mara Calista, who has opposed the Emergency Ordinance 60/2017, which was expected to leave 2,000 people with disabilities unemployed. Her main message was that not all politicians are ignoring these issues. She, for one, wanted to cooperate in the creation of a more tolerant workplace culture and demonstrated great patience in the debates as well as openness to feedback.
Some speakers took a more personal approach in their presentations. Roxana Dobrica spoke about her decade-long depressive episode following a traumatizing accident in her twenties that paralyzed her from the chest down. Because of inadequate support in Romania, she now resides in Italy where she has a successful career as a model and para-cyclist. She highlighted the many obstacles to her autonomy as a woman with a physical disability in Romania, ranging from poor accessibility to public transport to the exorbitant price of specialized wheelchairs. Yet, she claims that positive change is happening in Romania, and the diversity and size of the audience is a testament to that.
The summit also included a job fair where representatives of organizations, such as Adecco, Fan Courrier, and Startevo, introduced themselves and their work. This demonstrated a concrete commitment to including and fostering the agency of people living with disabilities. Beyond the interesting discussions and heart-warming speeches, the event provided a friendly environment where everyone could network, showcase their skills, and discover available positions.
While this event will not resolve the problem on its own, it is definitely a step in the right direction. It provided ample opportunities to empower people with all kinds of disabilities, advocating for a more inclusive corporate culture and fostering a sustainable cooperation between the political and business sectors.
Each of us can play a part in supporting the inclusion of people with disabilities in our respective countries by: attending and promoting similar events and raising awareness on disability issues on high visibility platforms; lobbying through NGOs, government bodies, or other influence groups on effective ways to address these issues and on the benefits for the economy and social cohesion of society in general; and by simply hiring a person with a disability.