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The equality and rights of people with disabilities must be taken into account in employment services

Many persons with disabilities face discrimination in working life, usually already in recruitment. For example, in a study published by the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman in 2016, 67 per cent of job applicants with a disability reported having faced discrimination when looking for a job. This percentage is remarkably high, taking into account that the corresponding rate among all wage earners is 5 per cent. Therefore, a significant percentage of persons with disabilities are left out of the workforce. This has negative impacts on their social status and overall well-being. 

Only roughly one in five persons with disabilities is gainfully employed. This low employment rate is largely explained by the barriers these people face when trying to enter working life, such as various attitudes and prejudices. This emphasis the role of the public authorities in supporting the employment of people with disabilities. The availability of employment services is also a question of basic and human rights, since employment services are used to fulfil the public authorities' obligation to work towards guaranteeing everyone the right to work, provided for in the Constitution of Finland. The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities also requires the public authorities to promote employment opportunities for persons with disabilities and assist them in finding employment. Indeed, the role of the employment services as the gatekeeper of access to working life is especially pronounced for groups of people at risk of discrimination.

Based on the reports made to the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman, however, the rights of people with disabilities to equal access to employment services are not always fulfilled. For example, TE services (the public employment service) have been inflexible about arranging services for job applicants with disabilities in accordance with the client's individual needs, which may lead to delays in service provision or failure to get services to which a person would be entitled. The Ombudsman has also promoted reconciliation in a case in which a person with disabilities was discriminated against when the TE services decided not to select them for labour market training without determining the person's possibility to participate in the training with reasonable accommodations. The individual needs of clients should be taken better into account in the organisation of services, instead of offering the same kinds of services to everyone.

The Non-Discrimination Act and UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities oblige the authorities to act in a uniform and non-discriminatory manner. Authorities are also required to promote equality and guarantee the fulfilment of basic rights and human rights in all of their activities. Therefore, the TE services, which are responsible for the organisation of employment services, must take active measures to ensure that people with disabilities actually enjoy the right of equal access to employment services to which they are entitled. The realisation of equality and non-discrimination must also be ensured when other partners, such as employers, are participating in the provision of employment services. As an authority, the TE services have the final responsibility for preventing the discrimination of people with disabilities in public services, for example as the result of a discriminatory instruction or order given by the employer.

The equality of people with disabilities can be promoted through measures such as appropriate equality promotion planning, in which the authority evaluates their operating environment and the work of their organisation from the perspective of the equality of various population groups. In employment services, for example, taking clients with disabilities into consideration can planning multichannel and flexible services in a manner that takes different ways of communication into account. It is also essential to increase staff awareness of the Non-Discrimination Act and making reasonable accommodations. 

It is also important to note that, as specifically provided in the amendment to the Non-Discrimination Act that entered into force in 2023, when a service is provided by an authority, the requirement of reasonable accommodations can also apply to the contents and manner of organisation of the service. What is essential, however, is the ability to organise the services as flexibly as possible within the framework of the legislation on employment services, because the individual circumstances of people with disabilities can vary greatly. 

The realisation of regional equality must be proactively addressed before the responsibility for organising services is transferred to the municipalities and employment areas with the reform of the TE services from 1 January 2025. This will require a comprehensive equality impact assessment concerning the various grounds for discrimination in the organisation of public services. The reform creates incentives for municipalities to promote employment as effectively as possible. Client groups who are difficult to employ have an equal right to the provision of services in a manner corresponding to their needs, and it is necessary to ensure that these incentives will not jeopardise this right.  A high degree of discretion is used in the organisation of these services, which underlines the employment services' responsibility for ensuring the equal treatment of their clients.