Despite project to boost inclusion, workers with disabilities still face marginalization
By Marc Abizeid
Special to The Daily Star
Friday, May 01, 2009
BEIRUT: Thousands of disabled Lebanese will be staying at home on Friday, not in honor of International Workers’ Day, but because they face widespread discrimination and stereotypes by employers preventing them from getting jobs, say members from the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union (LPHU).
May Day, which is meant to be a celebration of labor movements’ grand historical achievements, has become a reminder to the country’s estimated 200,000 handicapped individuals of the slow progress being made to secure their rights to employment.
“Because of the marginalization of disabled workers in Lebanon who face discrimination and stereotypes by employers, our group is needed to advocate throughout the private and public sectors to fight for their inclusion,” said Doha Yahfoufi, project coordinator with LPHU.
Yahfoufi is in charge of coordinating the Economic and Social Inclusion Project for People with Disabilities, a three-year-old initiative first launched in the Bekaa with the financial help of the NGO Christian Aid and the European Union. The project has since also launched offices in Beirut and Tyre.
The project works like a lobbying group, targeting both government offices and private employers to build relationships and offer what Yahfoufi described as mechanisms to help promote inclusion in the workplace. Throughout the last year, the project has organized 11 roundtable meetings with various businesses leaders and interested parties to present their ideas.
“Our main goal is to alter the misconception and stereotyping of disabled workers because we believe if you change the misconceptions, then there won’t be any need for job centers like ours,” she said. “Companies should be able to implement diversity and inclusion policies on their own without having to be pushed to do so.”
Statistical reports on the rate of unemployment of disabled citizens are rarely conducted, but the ones that do exist reveal an enormous discrepancy between handicapped and non-handicapped members in society.
The most recent report, conducted in 1994 by the Social Affairs Ministry, places the unemployment rate among the disabled at 83 percent, whereas the country’s overall unemployment rate stands at only 20 percent.
LPHU won a victory in May of 2000 when it helped push Parliament to pass Law 220 to help ensure basic rights for the disabled in education, rehabilitation and employment. Among other things, Law 220 requires that three percent of staff jobs be allocated to disabled workers in a private sector business with 60 or more employees.
But while getting the law through Parliament was a tremendous achievement for the rights activists, putting pressure on the Labor Ministry to ensure its enforcement poses a separate challenge. Despite penalties for non-compliant employers, Yahfoufi said that the law is not being practiced by many companies, not necessarily because employers are ignoring it, but rather because there isn’t much awareness.
“There is a lot of frustration among people with disabilities and others working for this cause that more isn’t being done by the government to enforce Law 220,” she said. “But that is why LPHU and its projects are necessary.”
She added that the government should support its own National Employment Office to provide companies with services like training sessions on how to implement the inclusion of disabled workers at the work place.
“The government here should realize what governments in Europe and other places have realized – that there is a benefit to diversity and inclusion, not just for people with disabilities … it has economic and social benefits as well,” she said.
While the project focuses mainly on advocacy and lobbying, it also provides training workshops for the handicapped to help motivate and train them for desired positions. The courses teach them a variety of skills and provide them with knowledge of things as basic as resume-writing to advanced courses in English and computer training.
“We also work on building their self-esteem and independence,” she said. “The most important thing is for them to be able to specify what they want and need to get the job, and we help guide them.”