Future perspectives in the employment of blind and partially sighted people -
The new EBU employment strategy


Paper Presented to the "Views Ahead" Conference, Bratislava, Slovak Republic, 28-29 October 2005
by Colin Low, Fred Reid and Philippa Simkiss


The paper presented by Rodolfo Cattani at the EBU conference on employment held in Paris in July 2003 drew attention to the scale of economic inactivity among disabled people in the European Union. He began by showing that a non-disabled person of working age in Europe has a 66 % chance of finding employment or developing a business. For a person with a moderate disability the probability is 44 % and for a person with a severe disability (including blind and partially sighted people) only 25 %. Only 30.5 % of the disabled population of working age is employed. Moreover national policies in place in the 1990s for increasing the employment activity of disabled people made little difference to these proportions.

In 1997, the Amsterdam Treaty for the first time gave the European Union a competence to combat discrimination, and in November 2000 the Framework Directive on Non-Discrimination in Employment and Occupation was adopted by the European Council. These were landmark developments in European legislation. The Framework Directive in particular applied important principles of non-discrimination to the field of employment for disabled people: the right to employment and to equal opportunities in recruitment, access to vocational training and guidance, career advancement, retraining, practical work experience, specific employment rights such as dismissal pay, direct and indirect discrimination, reasonable accommodation, positive actions to promote employment, legal support, remedies and sanctions. dr. Cattani rightly stated that "this directive could be an efficient tool to help blind and partially sighted people to improve and diversify their employment perspectives".


The European Employment Strategy (EES) was designed as the main tool to ensure that Member States help achieve EU-LEVEL employment policy priorities.

Key dates in the evolution of the EES are:

1997 -- the Amsterdam Treaty gave the European Commission the power to prepare a set of common guidelines. For the first time promoting employment became an EU objective.

1997 -- the Luxembourg European Council launched the EES and adopted the first set of annual employment guidelines for Member States, focused on four "pillars" - employability, entrepreneurship, adaptability and equal opportunities. In this case equal opportunities referred to ensuring equal access to jobs for women and men and equal treatment at work.

2000 -- the Lisbon European Council set the aim that Europe would become the most competitive and knowledge-based economy in the world within 10 years, and added new "horizontal objectives" of full employment, a better quality of work, lifelong learning and partnerships with social partners (employers, employers' organisations and trades unions). The Council also identified quantitative targets to achieve full employment.

2002 -- the Barcelona European Council decided to simplify the EES.

2003 -- the Spring European Council agreed a streamlined EES doing away with the four pillars and horizontal objectives. In their place the EES has three overarching objectives:
full employment (everyone who wants a job gets a job)
quality and productivity at work (opportunities for training, terms and conditions at work, how efficient we are)
cohesion and an inclusive labour market (opportunities to all).

These objectives were supported by ten guidelines:
1. Active measures for the unemployed and (economically) inactive
2. Job creation and entrepreneurship
3. The promotion of adaptability and mobility in the labour market
4. The promotion of lifelong learning
5. The promotion of active ageing
6. Gender equality
7. Combating discrimination against people at a disadvantage in the labour market
8. Making work pay through incentives
9. Transforming undeclared work into regular employment
10. Addressing regional employment disparities

Of these the most important for disabled people was no. 7 "combating discrimination against people at a disadvantage in the labour market". The Commission stressed the need for the adoption of quantifiable targets wherever possible and better governance of the EES through more involvement of social partners and civil society.

Finally in 2004 The Presidency of the European Council identified more and better jobs as the most pressing issue facing the EU.


The EES is designed as the main tool to give direction to, and ensure co-ordination of, the employment policy priorities to which Member States should subscribe at EU level. Heads of State and Government agreed on a framework for action based on the commitment from Member States to establish a set of common objectives and targets for employment policy. This co-ordination of national employment policies at EU level is built around several components:
a): following a proposal from the Commission, the European Council every year agrees on a series of guidelines setting out common priorities for Member States' employment policies.
but): every Member State draws up an annual National Action Plan detailing the steps taken to incorporate the guidelines into national policy and how the State is implementing the EES.
can): The Commission and the Council jointly examine each National Action Plan and present a Joint Employment Report.
The Commission then presents a new proposal to revise the Employment Guidelines accordingly for the following year.

There is an annual policy cycle:
January -- Broad economic policy guidelines and Joint Employment Implementation report released
March -- Spring European Council meets to discuss economic, social and employment policy
April -- European Commission publishes EU guidelines package proposing action in various policy areas
June -- Employment strategy experts from Member States and representatives from Council of Ministers adopt employment guidelines (which apply across EU) and recommendations (country specific), which are endorsed by European Council
October -- Member States finalise their National Action Plans in consultation with stakeholders

The EES operates under the "Open Method of Co-ordination" (OMC). That is rather than relying on legislative directives, EES implementation is based on non-binding codes of conduct and voluntary networks designed to improve the effectiveness of national policies. The OMC fosters the sharing of good practice and partnership building but depends upon Member States being willing to co-operate. There is a danger that national governments use the National Action Plans to present what they are already doing through domestic employment policies rather than use the process as a learning opportunity. Thus the potential of the policy cycle to result in an EES fully implemented across all Member States depends heavily upon the level of engagement with stakeholders.


Following from the EES, the Commission produced a policy paper in 2005 entitled "Disability Mainstreaming in the European Employment Strategy". This recognised that "People with disabilities are one of the groups who are disadvantaged in most Member States as regards participation in the labour market".

It statz: "in its policies for disadvantaged groups, the Commission follows the approach of mainstreaming. Mainstreaming means that the needs of disadvantaged people need to be taken into account in the design of all policies and measures, and that action for disadvantaged people is not limited to those policies and measures which are specifically addressing their needs".

"The legal background for the need to apply the principle of mainstreaming in policies is to be found in the EU directive against discrimination prohibiting discrimination in employment and occupation on the grounds of disability and other grounds".

"With regard to disability in particular, the Directive is in many ways a ground-breaking piece of legislation".

As one in six of the EU working-age population has a disability of some sort, and given the low employment rate of this group, increasing the employment rate of disabled people contributes significantly to the Lisbon objective of an employment rate of 70 % by 2010. People with disabilities are a much-underused source of labour in Europe, which could contribute to overall economic growth.

In the new guidelines, three priorities have been identified on which action should concentrate in order to address the policy objectives: attracting and retaining more people in employment, increasing labour supply and modernising social protection systems; improving adaptability of workers and enterprises; and increasing investment in human capital through better education and skills. The paper says that the guidelines corresponding to these priorities bear a great potential for introducing the mainstreaming disability approach and goes on to analyse each of the guidelines in this respect.

On attracting and retaining more people in employment, increasing labour supply and modernising social protection systems, it says: "People with disabilities constitute a group which could offer extra labour supply. This becomes even more relevant since the share of the working-age population is decreasing due to demographic trends. In this context, it is important that policies target both people with disabilities looking actively for a job as well as people with disabilities who have given up the job search."

Speaking of retention it says: "Positive actions such as a period of leave combined with further training, change of their job descriptions or alternative assignments should be envisaged before considering the person to be invalid. In this context, it is important to propose these measures at an early stage. Measures to address this issue should therefore include, among others, initiatives targeted at employers to ensure that their human resource policies also take more and better account of the needs of disabled employees."

The guidelines stress the need that Member States, in taking action, should ensure good governance of employment policies. Implementing disability mainstreaming in an effective way requires the active participation of employers, trade unions, public authorities, civil society and other relevant actors. This active participation should be organised in a systematic and structural way in order to ensure continuity in the pursuit of this important goal.


In philosophy the Disability Mainstreaming paper is almost unexceptionable. Each Member State is to increase the number of disabled people in employment by working through the guidelines. Nevertheless there are at least three reasons for thinking that it falls some way short of what is required as far as the employment of blind and partially sighted people is concerned.

First, blind and partially sighted people are among the hardest groups of disabled people to employ. In the UK their unemployment rate is 75 % compared to 51 % for disabled people generally. If Member States are to make a significant impact on this figure, they must, as the EU paper itself recognises, build programmes of rehabilitation, training and other support into work which are sensitive to the particular needs of visually impaired people.
Second, such programmes are more expensive. For example, it costs the RNIB's training grade scheme three times more to bring a visually impaired person to job readiness than it costs the statutory empoyment services to bring a sighted disabled person to the same point. This is not a reason for putting visually impaired people to the back of the queue, yet this is exactly what governments are doing. Thus in the UK, Incapacity Benefit reform designed to get people off benefits and into work is focused on people with muscular-skeletal and cardio-vascular problems - the most numerous - as well as people with mental illness, while visually impaired people are exempted from the personal capacity to work test of eligibility for Incapacity Benefit and thus deprived of the all-important counselling and support they need if they are ever to gain a foothold in the labour market.
Third, taken together, these factors mean that at least half of all visually impaired people will need supported employment, i.e. they are unable to work the normal hours for the standard rate of pay and will require intermediate labour market solutions involving specialised environments or regimes or targeted measures of special support if they are ever to stand any realistic chance of working. Those concerned include visually impaired people with severe additional disabilities and/or ageing - some of the most vulnerable amongst the disabled. "Disability Mainstreaming in the European Employment Strategy" could in theory make employment a possibility for this group, cf. what the paper has to say about positive actions to promote retention such as periods of leave, retraining and job restructuring. But Member States have shown virtually no interest in this kind of supported inclusion.
Rodolfo Cattani's conclusions seem very much to the point. He identifies a crucial shift of emphasis in the EU's strategy from special provision to a rights-based programme for inclusion of disabled people in the mainstream labour force. He stresses, however, that "blind and partially sighted persons constitute a highly vulnerable group amongst the totality of disabled people", notwithstanding the achievements of those with good education and skills. He warns correctly of "the impetuous evolution of technology". This will not automatically swell the ranks of blind and partially sighted people in mainstream production and could even cause a reduction. He remarks pertinently: "For totally blind people and for people who have visual and learning disabilities, the future is quite problematic, because they are simply refused if employers can hire a disabled person with a less severe impairment". He therefore calls upon EBU "to analyse very carefully the changes in the labour market, developing a specific long-term strategy in order to equip our national organisations with the necessary knowledge and experience to use at national level".

So the paper is good as far as it goes. What it says is welcome. It is what it leaves out that is the problem. It does not really address the issue of supported employment and the employment continuum. In going down the mainstreaming route, it limits its focus to those who are easiest to employ. This makes sense in terms of raising the level of employment to make Europe the most competitive knowledge-based econony in a globalised world economy, but it does not make sense for a low-incidence group like the visually impaired, many of whom are amongst the most vulnerable disabled people who are hardest to employ.

Why should states put themselves out to get such people into employment against the odds in an increasingly competitive environment? Our answer to that question is "citizenship" - it is the right of every disabled person as a citizen that the state should use what Galbraith called its countervailing power to support them into work. This is not a difficult concept to promote under the European Social Model, but can the European Social Model survive in a more competitive Europe gearing itself up to withstand the pressures of globalisation? It may not survive complettly intact, but we would argue that the kind of rights that go with citizenship have to survive if a Europe in crisis is to retain the contact with its citizens which alone can give it legitimacy.

There is something of this in "Disability Mainstreaming in the European Employment Strategy" when it speaks of strengthening social and territorial cohesion: "Most social expenditure on health and social policies represents an investment in human resources with positive economic effects. Social policies should have sufficient financial resources in order to contribute to an increased labour supply and to be able to alleviate the difficulties faced by disabled people in accessing or remaining in the labour market. Access to a job, ensuring opportunities to acquire the skills necessary to facilitate participation in the labour market and remain in the labour market (reflecting in particular the wide use of ICT and the move towards a knowledge-based society), and the possibility to progress in terms of pay and qualifications are major factors for promoting social inclusion". This is something EBU should seek to build on with a view to persuading the EU to develop a more diversified employment strategy that does not rely exclusively on the mainstreaming approach.


The new EES does refer to themes such as equal opportunities and inclusive labour market but there is no overall target relating to employment of disabled people, and the target related to women only materialised after heavy lobbying by women's organisations in Brussels. The promotion of gender issues through National Action Plans has come about because of pressure over decades from the women's movement and civil society.

Having a separate guideline within the EES on gender equality has made a big difference because the European Commission can assess Member States' progress on implementation within this specific area and make suggestions for further work if necessary. EBU could seek to strengthen EES guidelines. It is worth pushing for a disability target on the model of the gender target as a way of holding policy makers to their commitment in the EES guidelines.


The disability lobby through the European Disability Forum has not had the same influence as the women's movement, partly because they have only recently started putting more effort into employment issues. The disability movement should be striving to achieve a similar emphasis on disabled people, and EBU could contribute to this.

The new EES guidelines do refer to the fact that access to the labour market is a priority with respect to people with disabilities and two of the guidelines are particularly relevant.

Guideline 7 refers to promoting integration and combating discrimination against people at a disadvantage in the labour market. It states that "Member States will foster the integration of people facing particular difficulties on the labour market, such as early school leavers, low-skilled workers, people with disabilities, immigrants, and ethnic minorities, by developing their employability, increasing job opportunities and preventing all forms of discrimination against them. In particular, policies will aim to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction in each Member State in the unemployment gaps for people at a disadvantage, according to any national targets and definitions".

The European Commission may find it politically difficult to get specific targets agreed. EBU members could lobby both Member States and the Commission to establish a specific target on the reduction of the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people.

Guideline 8 stresses the need to make work pay, stating that "Member States will reform financial incentives with a view to making work attractive and encouraging men and women to seek, take up and remain in work. In this context Member States should develop appropriate policies with a view to reducing the number of working poor. They will consider tax and benefit systems and their interaction with a view to eliminating unemployment, poverty and inactivity traps, and encouraging the participation of women, low-skilled workers, older workers, people with disabilities and those furthest from the labour market in employment".

There is great interest within the European Commission in collecting experiences from member states. Disability is not a homogeneous phenomenon but in the past the main focus has been on mobility disability. EBU could work to ensure that all impairments are considered at policy level, highlighting economic as well as social arguments to satisfy the EU that it is in the state's interest to promote productive work for these groups.

The Commission should work with stakeholders such as the disability movement to discuss how stakeholders experience policies and how they impact on people. EBU members could use National Action Plans (NAP's) to raise disability issues such as integration in the labour market at Member State level. As we have seen, a major criticism of the EES is that it does not recognise the importance of an employment continuum that seeks to provide support for those who are furthest from the labour market and need additional support. Instead the EES focuses on getting people into mainstream employment. This then impacts on other EU areas of activity such as Social Fund priorities. EBU should work to correct this emphasis.

Maintaining a focus on the European Parliament is also crucial as this is the most democratic body.


The European Social Fund (ESF) has been developed as a tool for delivering the EES. NGO's and voluntary sector organisations have been active in gaining access to ESF funding to support the delivery of projects that meet ESF requirements, which in turn are all based on EES principles.

Voluntary organisations tend to work with those who are socially excluded with the result that ESF money has been used to target disadvantaged and hard-to-reach groups. In this way the voluntary sector has worked to promote the convergence of employment and social inclusion policies, for example by pioneering work to increase equality of opportunity, focusing attention on pre-vocational skills training and developing opportunities in pre-labour market activities. These elements are key to implementation of the EES guidelines so it is vital that Member States take the opportunity of National Action Plan consultations to learn from NGO and voluntary sector stakeholders. After all the voluntary sector has the expertise to deliver to individuals at the local community level and has built up an extensive infrastructure and partnership network for this purpose, something that national governments would do well to note.


The EES is the main tool used by the European Commission to influence Member States' employment policies and monitor how they are implementing EU policies at national level. The new, simpler EES comprises three overarching objectives and there are lots of ways that EBU and its members could influence EES implementation and development. "Disability Mainstreaming" disclaims any coercive power over National Action Plans. The EBU must therefore take up issues at national level through its member organisations and lobby both national governments and the institutions of the European Union.

At the Paris employment conference in July 2003 Rodolfo Cattani laid out a clear programme of action for EBU in the employment field which has been accepted by the EBU Board as follows:

1 EBU should seek to ensure that the requirements of blind and partially sighted people are clearly recognised, both by EDF and by the EU Commission.

2 Enhanced EU cooperation to promote labour market incentives within the social protection systems. In the case of people with disabilities, these measures have to be tailored according to individual needs and capacities. They should be accompanied by a comprehensive set of supports such as wage subsidies to be combined with earned income, adapted work environments and personal support at the workplace when needed.

3 A major element of the new European Employment Strategy should be the visibility of disability. This entails mainstreaming, but with the important proviso that disability specific policies are coordinated with the general mainstream actions.

4 Inclusion of social clauses in public procurement legislation. Employment of people with disabilities should be considered as a positive additional factor for the award of a public contract.

5 The issue of job retention is extremely important for those persons who become disabled during their working life. They need accommodation in the workplace and "disability leave" - a period of time to get better oriented in the new working conditions.

6 It is important to clarify that a disabled person who obtains a job should not be penalised by benefit traps. On the contrary, employment and participation should be encouraged by ensuring the necessary financial security, especially for those unable to earn a full income. Compensation for the extra costs incurred by disabled workers in connection with their employment, as well as mobility costs, should also be met.

7 Measures facilitating a reconciliation between professional and family responsibilities should be developed in order to support mothers and fathers of disabled children. The possibility to take leave should also be extended to cover those looking after disabled family members regardless of their age.

In the light of the Bratislava "Views Ahead" conference, this should now be summarised and updated as follows: EBU should lobby at national level, with EDF and the European institutions for:
- Full acceptance of and practical support for the notion of the employment continuum;
- A specific disability guideline in the developing European Employment Strategy;
- Quantitative targets for the employment of disabled people;
- Disability leave;
- Recognition in public procurement legislation of the employment of disabled people as a positive additional factor in the awarding of public contracts;
- The full involvement of ngo's in the development of the European Employment Strategy.


Reflections on the European Employment Strategy. 2004. Edited by Guy Palmer and Suriya Edwards, New Policy Institute. wwwddnpiddorgdduk

More and Better Jobs. 2004. New Policy Institute.

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