People with disabilities and jobs during a pandemic

This article is in conjunction with the annual Workers’ Day celebration on May 1.

KUALA LUMPUR – As the nation prepares to celebrate Workers’ Day on Saturday, albeit on a limited scale due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a stark truth has emerged about the employment of people with disabilities (PwD).

Sadly, the pandemic has made it all the more difficult for PwD to remain gainfully employed, not to mention the usual impediments of constraints of facilities in the workplace and acceptance by the public, especially employers.

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One reason for this, according to the analysts interviewed, is that the pandemic has not spared ordinary people either. COVID-19 has also cast them into the world of unemployment and forced them to look for new jobs to keep their heads above water.

One percent employment opportunity in the civil service

Dr Ahmad Shamsuri Muhamad, chairman of the Committee on Employment and Economic Empowerment of the National Council for the Blind Malaysia (NCBM), said PwD do not have access to equal employment opportunities as do ordinary people.

The matter (of equal rights) is stated in the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 but this is more in terms of the policy and not on the aspects of implementation and enforcement, he pointed out.

“It’s true that PwD are also affected by the pandemic. Some have lost even the meagre income they have had while others have been laid off work. How can they get on with life with the shortcomings they face?

“Ordinary people may be able to find alternative employment, for example being Grab drivers/riders or engaging in a small business, but this will be more difficult for PwD, especially the visually impaired,” he told Bernama.

Ahmad Shamsuri suggested that to help these people, serious attention be given to the policy requiring the provision of one per cent employment opportunities in the civil service for PwD that was introduced in 1988 and implemented through service circulars in 2008 and 2010.

He also proposed the reactivation of a special task force established under the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development to ensure that the policy truly achieves its objectives and targets.

“Until now, the policy has only achieved 0.3 per cent overall although several ministries and departments, more so Women, Family and Community Development Ministry itself, have shown a positive development in the recruitment of PwD.

“This task force has to be reactivated to make available a special unit that monitors the quota stated in the (service) circular, ensures its implementation and promotes to other ministries and agencies the policy to employ PwD and, thus, achieve the desired objectives,” he said.

A Bernama report on Dec 12, 2020, stated that as of June 2019, the total number of PwD in the civil service was 3,686, equivalent to 0.29 per cent.

Ahmad Shamsuri also pointed out other issues pertaining to disabled employees, saying they are paid salaries which are way below the minimum wage and are discriminated against and accorded unequal treatment compared with the ordinary workers, and are even told they have to be grateful that they have got jobs.

“PwD must be accorded equal rights and services in the workplace. Employers have to provide an appropriate support system in the workplace, including opportunities for promotion and so on, so that PwD can also perform their duties well,” he said, adding that the code of practice for employment of PwD in the private sector should be reviewed and improved.

Conitnuity of education, career path

Assoc Prof Dr Hasnah Toran, chairman of Raudhah Autisme, a ‘group home’ project for a number of male youths in their 20s, said the constraint of disabled youths to continue their skills studies, especially in vocational streams, is among the contributors to their difficulty in securing jobs.

Dr Hasnah, who is a lecturer at the Faculty of Education in Universiti Kebangsaaan Malaysia (UKM), said when half a million university graduates are unemployed, what more PwD, especially those who are low functioning or have limits in many areas.

“There must be a clear continuity for disabled youths, right from school, college, skills institutes or institutions of higher learning to a career path that suits their PwD category, talents and skills.

“There is awareness of the need for PwD to be self-reliant and to work but this is not comprehensive and, as such, the impact is minimal.

“We need to have planning at a higher level by bringing together the various ministrys, such as the Education Ministry, Higher Education Ministry, Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, Human Resource Ministry, and Youth and Sports Ministry, to discuss the matter,” she said, adding that the various policies have to be translated into implementation so that they do not just remain on paper.

Readiness of all quarters

Occupational Health Doctor Shawaludin Husin, who is president of the Malaysian Association for Occupational Safety and Health (MSOSH) said the reality of equal rights between the disabled and non-disabled, especially in terms of employments opportunities, is difficult to achieve.

This, he said, is because even in daily life, there is no denying that there are differences, especially constraints in terms of infrastructure and treatment that is less disabled-friendly.

“This matter demands the readiness of all quarters to seek to overcome it. Developed countries, for example, are more prepared in terms of facilities for PwD, in such areas as transportation, special routes and other amenities, and there is community acceptance of PwD.

“In our country, there is still a lack of awareness and the surroundings are not supportive enough in this matter (of job opportunities for PwD). Even if employers and workplaces are ready to accept PwD, what about the matter of PwD moving to and from the workplace and other things they have to put up with?” he asked.

OSHA 1994, responsibility of employers

Referring to employees who were originally healthy but became disabled due to accidents at work or on their way to or from work, Dr Shawaludin said employers held the responsibility of ensuring that these employees could return to work under the Occupational Safety & Health Act 1994 (OSHA 1994).

Among the main purposes of OSHA 1994 is to ensure that the safety, health and welfare of workers in the workplace are guaranteed and their safety and health is at no risk arising from work activities as well as to protect the safety and welfare of third parties from safety and health risks arising from work activities of employees in the workplace.

OSHA 1994 also encourages employers to create a safe and healthy environment at their workplace to meet the physiological and psychological needs of employees as well as to establish a more efficient and orderly occupational safety and health legal system based on industry legislation and code of practice in line with the rapid technological changes to replace the old inefficient and less flexible work system approach.

“Therefore, employers who fail to protect the safety, health and welfare of employees to the extent that accidents occur resulting in their becoming crippled, paralysed, blind or deaf or suffering from slipped disc or back pain due to ergonomic factors, or lung damage due to chemicals or dust in the work environment and much more have the responsibility of bringing these workers back to work quickly and safely after treatment and upon undertaking improvements in the workplace.

“Employers also need to conduct a risk assessment by ensuring that employees who return to work after an accident or occupational disease are able to perform their duties in accordance with their ability to avoid the risk of getting injured again,” he said.

He also said that if employers fail to perform these responsibilities, they can be subjected to action under Section 15 of OSHA 1994 which says it is the responsibility of employers to ensure a safe workplace environment or face civil legal action for negligence.

“The impact of accidents on workers not only carries the risk of increasing the number of PwD but also the emotional, physical and financial effects on the victims and family members and, by extension, on the community and country,” he said, adding that the matter demands a huge commitment from the government in championing the rights of disabled workers so that employers do not wash their hands off it.