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Work plays a central role in the lives of most adults, including people with disabilities (a person with a physical, mental or cognitive disability, permanent or temporary, owing to which his functioning is substantially limited in one or more major life fields - Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law, 5758 - 1998). Opportunity for people with disabilities to engage in "mainstream" employment can enhance their quality of life not only vis-Ã -vis their increased economic means but also due to enhanced personal activity, social contact, self-esteem and integration into the community. Conversely, unemployment may lead people with disabilities to dependency, boredom, alienation, feelings of meaninglessness and hopelessness, loss of self-esteem, social exclusion, and poverty.
In light of the role of job-holding in the well-being, functioning and recovery of persons with disabilities, the prevalence of unemployment in the Israeli population is disconcerting. Recent surveys indicate that the unemployment rates for people with disabilities are typically 70 percent-90%. Furthermore, the work conditions of persons with disabilities are poorer than the general population. For example, a survey that was conducted by the Commission for Equal Rights of Persons with Disabilities found that persons with disabilities tend to occupy part-time positions, lower paying occupations and receive less professional training more often than others. As a result, one of the most economically deprived populations comprised of disabled people.
The high rate of unemployment among this large population, and its dependency on disability payments, lead to a heavy economic and social burden in Western countries. The US, for instance, loses $43.7 billion a year in absenteeism from work, lost productivity and direct treatment costs due to depression alone within the disabled community.
Such problems are not confined to a small number of individuals or an isolated subset of the general population. An estimated 25% of the Israeli population struggle with disabilities, and 10% struggle with a severe disability. That translates into nearly 1.4 million people with disabilities and more than 650,000 with severe disabilities, of which about 260,000 are of working age (18-65).
FOR MANY DECADES, the public and the policy-makers believed that people with disabilities were unemployable because of their disabilities (whether physical, emotional or cognitive), and thus they could not be included in the labor force. Nowadays, it is agreed that the high unemployment rates of people with disabilities is a combination of the disability, together with a set of external social factors (such as stigma, discrimination, lack of awareness regarding the human rights of people with disabilities) and absence of incentives for employers to include the disabled in their businesses.
Due to this dire situation, both the government and nongovernmental organizations have been promoting legislation aimed at enhancing the employment situation of persons with disabilities. For example, the Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law defined the rights of persons with disabilities at the workplace, prohibited discrimination in the hiring and employment processes, drew general principals concerning the reasonable accommodation for workers with disabilities and mentioned the option of affirmative action.
Nevertheless, these positive efforts did not implement one of the most efficient strategies to increase job opportunities for persons with disabilities. That is, tax benefits for employers who hire them. In the US, for example, there are seven different tax credits available to companies which hire individuals with disabilities. One of them, the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, allows employers tax credits of up to $2,400.
These kinds of incentives may make Israeli employers realize that they can "do good" and "do well." If, for example, employers receive tax breaks (e.g. reduced payment for the property tax [arnona], tax refunds for employers with a certain percentage of their workforce made up of people with disabilities, etc.) or other financial incentives, it may lead to a significant improvement in the employment situation of people with disabilities. In turn, it may improve their social inclusion and their quality of life while contributing to the prosperity of the labor market.
I call to the new government to promote legislation and regulations that will encourage employers to hire people with disabilities - for the sake of those that struggle with disability and for the sake of society.
The writer is the head of In Good Company - Looking Beyond, a non-profit organization aiming to reduce stigma and discrimination against persons with psychiatric disabilities. He is a PhD student in the Community Mental Health Department at the University of Haifa.