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2021.06.01 10:15

A way forward for employing people with disabilities in Lithuania

Giedrė Čiužaitė, LRT RADIJAS, LRT.lt2021.06.01 10:15

More and more companies in Lithuania seek to employ disabled people, despite additional costs of adapting the working environment. The effort is made easier by special employment intermediaries.

The article is part of LRT's solutions journalism project, LRT Looks for Solutions.

Only a third of disabled people in Lithuania are employed. Experts claim that additional measures are needed to encourage their successful integration into the labour market. One of the proposed solutions has been to build a wider network of employment intermediaries.

Importance of feeling valued

“On July 27, I will have been working at Decathlon for a year. For me, it is a chance to feel part of the society. I live my life to the fullest when I work. My colleagues support me 100 percent, and I try to support them back,” says Giedrius Balsys.

Decathlon is one of the biggest sports shops in Vilnius. If you ever used its fitting rooms, there is a high chance that the clothes you put away were neatly folded by Giedrius.

Giedrius is 37. He finished secondary school and then went on to study in a culinary school to be a chef’s assistant. He worked in a cafe, a bar, and in a social enterprise, but lost his job there.

Giedrius finds it hard to get a job in the open market. He is disabled, although he himself does not know what his disability is. After consulting with specialists, he pinned down that it could be called a learning disorder.

He managed to get a job at Decathlon thanks to an employment intermediary from VšĮ SOPA.

“We work with people who have difficulties finding a job. In many cases, these are disabled people. We help them on an individual basis,” says Jurgita Kuprytė, founder and head of SOPA. “Employment intermediaries get to know the difficulties this person is dealing with, their strengths and needs, and then look for places where they could realise their potential.”

Employment intermediaries continue to provide support even once the person is hired – help them with specific problems at work or teach them skills needed for the job.

Kuprytė says that a specialist would hold sessions with their clients several times a week, sometimes every day. The client’s skills and suitable workplaces are identified not only through discussions, but also through various simulations and tasks.

Most suitable job

Sometimes employment mediation leads to unexpected results. When the agency was looking for staff for the social restaurant Pirmas Blynas, they contacted many potential candidates, more than were eventually hired. Among them was Augustė, who has Down syndrome. She was good at cleaning dishes and folding napkins. So employment intermediaries contacted another business, a hotel, and suggested they hire Augustė.

Another woman with an autism spectrum disorder was hired as a price checker in a shop, a position that was tailored specifically for her skill set.

“She can notice small details, but it would have been difficult for her to just be a regular retail worker. We looked for ways to put her extraordinary attentiveness to work, omitting what she can’t do,” Kuprytė explains the situation. “That is how the price checker position emerged.”

In the case of Giedrius, Kuprytė says he tried out several jobs, until they decided he would do best in customer service due to his communicativeness and politeness.

Employer’s point of view

Nicolas Fogola, the head of Decathlon subsidiary in Vilnius, says that three out of 65 of the shop's employees are disabled. It was among the values of the company to welcome people of different capabilities and skills.

Fogola says that Giedrius’ hiring process had gone through several stages.

“The first stage was to identify what we needed, what positions we could offer. Our only requirement was that the candidates be interested in sports,” says Fogola. “SOPA then checked which of their clients were interested in sports. We met with the candidates, saw how they were dealing with practical tasks. We picked two people.”

As we spoke to Fogola, another employee was folding clothes near the fitting rooms. Giedrius was on a holiday.

“Giedrius does everything similarly to this employee,” says Fogola. “It was important to set up an environment where he could do as much of the work on his own as possible. This way his confidence, skills, and experience developed further. Now he is able to work on his own.”

Fogola says the company does not receive any financial support from the state, yet he values the support and practical help from SOPA a lot.

“We can start looking for financial support later on, but it is not our priority.”

More job positions

According to SOPA's Kuprytė, more and more businesses approach the agency looking to hire disabled people.

Companies employing disabled people can apply for subsidies from the Employment Service, although not all of them do, Kuprytė says.

“Half of the people [with disabilites] work under the same conditions as everyone else. That is our goal, to ensure that people can find work as anyone else, and be paid the same as everyone else.”

Advantages of the intermediary programme, Kuprytė says, include helping people out of poverty and reducing social exlusion which, she notes, is a much bigger problem among disabled people.

Being employed also helps disabled people build self-confidence, as they are able to more fully participate in the society.

Henrika Varnienė, director at the Lithuanian Disability Organisations Forum (LNF), adds that disabled people can bring some very specific skills to the table.

“For example, pedantry and meticulousness towards certain things if the person is autistic. Helpfulness and kindheartedness of people with mental disabilities can be beneficial in such a position,” she says. “We have plenty of examples when disability does not get in the way of work.”

Varnienė also points out that the state saves funds by investing into intermediaries and employing disabled people, since they then contribute as taxpayers. People with mental conditions are less likely to need hospitalisation when they're employed, she says.

The benefits also include more tolerance and understanding among a company's staff.

“This both changed [our team], and didn’t,” Nicolas Fogola says of Giedrius’ impact on the other employees. “We are all united by sports, and topics we can all discuss, so this doesn’t really change anything. However, Giedrius’ integration into the team did change the staff’s worldview a bit.

“It strengthened [the team], and helped us develop our ability to help one another.”

Challenges

Fogola admits that at first it was difficult to find a suitable position for Giedrius.

“It is important that one can be in a situation that would improve their self-esteem and independence, without pushing them out of their comfort zone,” says Fogola. “This requires reviewing the company's standards. It takes time, and the company itself needs to get involved.”

Fogola says that the main challenge was to help Giedrius gain enough confidence to be able to work on his own. Self-confidence, Varnienė admits, is a serious problem and is influenced by several factors.

“The lack of self-confidence is part of the former system. I myself have met many employers who asked if a disabled person can really take care of a garden or prune trees,” says Varnienė. “The system was prone to closing disabled people off so much so that it took their confidence away.

“It didn’t give any opportunities to try and work, make mistakes. You can find out that a job isn’t for you after doing it and learning some skills. Much like everyone else. Only someone disabled is more afraid to make mistakes.”

Social enterprises should disappear?

Giedrius says that he feels happier working among different people and prefers it to a social enterprise where the majority of the team are disabled.

While many of the disabled people he knows would rather work in a social enterprise, Giedrius believes that getting employed in a regular company through intermediaries should be encouraged more.

Giedrius also notes a lack of motivation among disabled people is an issue, although, according to Varnienė, it is just as common among the able-bodied.

Social enterprises themselves have certain drawbacks. Such enterprises are quite specific in the field of work, and limited in the positions they can offer.

Moreover, while many disabled people do feel more comfortable among their peers, working in a more varied team would help them gain more universal skills, believes Kuprytė of SOPA.

Varnienė believes that social enterprises have outlived their usefulness.

“When a person spends a long time in prison, they don’t know how to live outside [...]. For the time being they feel safe, but it is a reservation, a prison. The system [in Lithuania] just doesn’t alignt with the human rights perspectives anymore.

“[...] Social enterprises can organise these self-help groups. But we need to understand that people become less independent, as they don’t even know how to communicate with able-bodied people, and then say ‘The able-bodied don’t accept us’,” Varnienė says.

Need for stable funding

According to Kuprytė, it is important for a person, whether able-bodied or disabled, to feel safe and valued in a workplace.

SOPA was founded 15 years ago in hopes to solve the need for employment intermediaries in Lithuania.

Kuprytė details that services of employment intermediaries are widely available in Western European countries. They are systematically provided, and funded by the state, which is not yet the case in Lithuania.

“Here non-governmental organisations provide these services through project funding. However, it is not a stable model and has many drawbacks. We cannot guarantee that, once the duration of one project is over, we will be able to continue providing services,” says Kuprytė.

SOPA currently employs five intermediaries, servicing more than 100 people with disabilities or from other marginalised groups per year. Kuprytė admits that they used to find employment for about 75 percent of their clients, while lately the rate has been only about 50 percent. What is more, around a half of them tend to change jobs after a short while.

“There are many reasons: sometimes they don’t like the position or the workplace, their health gets worse, sometimes it can just be a temporary job,” says Kuprytė. “However, even a temporary job can be a big push forward, as people gain experience of looking for a job, they know what they can or cannot do. [...] People become more active and self-confident.”

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