UNEMPLOYMENT, UNEMPLOYMENT, and more unemployment. It is said that the door of employment is narrowing down day by day, with the topic of youth unemployment rate having been on the hot pan for years. Politicians compete with pledges to ensure employment for the population, newspaper headlines cover the gray reality of the labor market, and citizens express their distress in facing the growing hardship in securing a job, all of which prove the urgency and seriousness of the matter. However, there is a minority group that has been struggling with the problem of unemployment countless years before it became an issue of the majority. Unemployment is a rotten word for them: the roots of unemployment are deeply planted in their world and have been suffocating them in perpetuum. These people, unfortunately, are suffering now and will suffer in the future if proper measures are not implemented. Who are they? They are persons with developmental disabilities.
Showing the dark reality with numbers
Although policies do exist, and the statistics show improvement to some extent, the government’s employment services for the developmentally handicapped are still insufficient in both quantity and quality. This is especially true in South Korea, where the data evidently reveals the severity of the situation. The Korea Employment Agency for the Disabled (KEAD) claimed that the labor market participation rate for the total handicapped population was 38.5% in 2016, and, of all who participated, only 36.1% were employed. Compared to the employment rate of the total population that has reached 66.2% in 2018, the participation and employment rate for the handicapped is severely low, underlining the grimness of their reality. In addition, the KEAD also reported that the unemployment rate of the disabled was 6.5% in the same year, which is almost double the rate of the general population. As can be seen from these numbers, employment is a real, unconquerable challenge for the handicapped.
Now, the numbers above include all types of disabilities; when we consider the rates for people with developmental disabilities alone, the circumstances only become more concerning. In 2017, the labor participation rate of those with developmental disabilities marked 26.6%, which is 36.7% lower than that of the general population. The employment rate marked 23.5%, which, again, is 37.5% below the rate of total population. In addition, the unemployment rate reached 11.6%, which is triple the number of the total unemployment rate of the entire population. Even compared to the aggregate population of all people with disabilities, the percentage of unemployment is dominantly higher for those with developmental disabilities.
By numbers, we can already see the cruelty of the status quo in the labor market, especially for those with developmental disabilities. However, the age bracket for different types of disabilities paints the reality a shade darker, revealing a more worrisome layer of the problem. The numbers show that the distribution of the developmentally disabled population is concentrated in the lower age brackets, from 0 to 29. Under the age of 30, persons with developmental disabilities dominate the total population of disabled people by 61.2%. On the other hand, individuals with visual disturbance, auditory disorder, brain lesions, and other types of disabilities are largely concentrated in the older age brackets. This phenomenon stems from the fact that developmental disabilities are often inborn, while other types of disability can be acquired in later stages in one’s life due to physical deterioration or accidents.
The product of the statistics of the labor market multiplied by the percentages of age distribution equals an exacerbated position in the job market for people with developmental disabilities. For instance, visual and auditory disabilities can be developed over the years; therefore, it can be assumed that these people were once able to participate in the labor market without substantial limitations. Henceforth, they would be relatively more practiced in economic activities and perhaps even possess past experiences in the workplace. However, the situation is not the same for the developmentally handicapped. As these people are usually born with their disabilities, they are not given equal opportunities of employment. Therefore, the economic circumstances of people with developmental disorder are often hopeless throughout all ages: from the beginning of the working age to the retirement age.
Mistaken aims and the reality
However, these dire conditions do not necessarily mean that the government remained as a mere spectator to the issue. They have been endeavoring quite fervently, in fact, to provide those with developmental disabilities with torches of hope on their pitch-black journeys. As the status in the labor market for the developmentally handicapped has been an evident societal problem, the South Korean government has been showing continuous effort to ameliorate the situation.
Ever since the Welfare of Disabled Persons Act came into effect in 1981, South Korea has seen remarkable growth in the development of legislations and policies regarding disability. Along with raised attention, employment assistance programs are provided by three ministries: the Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL), Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW), and Ministry of Education (MOE). Firstly, the MOHW facilitates community centers for the handicapped, controls the Korea Association of the Vocational Rehabilitation Facilities for the Disabled (KAVRD) and the Korean Disabled People’s Institute (KoDDI), and additionally supports employment services planned by these associations. Services organized and managed by such institutions include training people with developmental disabilities with adequate manufacturing skills for employment and creating special working areas for them.
Next, the MOEL works in collaboration with the KEAD to conduct research into improving the effectiveness of their policies, again to educate skills to handicapped individuals and to provide matching services between firms and individuals to enhance the employment rate. In addition, the MOE educates the disabled people since young, equipping them with common knowledge and usable abilities for the future. The number of centers that accommodate these services is also increasing: Seoul and Busan have both recently rebuilt their employment agency centers to quarter more of the disabled population, a positive improvement in not only quality but also quantity
The government has also made the employment of persons with disabilities a legal obligation for firms that have over 50 workers. Public and local institutions are obliged to fill 3.2% of their labor force from the handicapped population. Also, private corporations are to hire 2.9% of its workforce with disabled workers, and these percentages have been gradually increasing over the years. This could be seen as the effect of additional governmental policies, ones that promise several perks, such as tax exemptions, subsidies, and more, to companies that hire more people with disabilities and cooperate with the government’s worker-firm linkage system.
“I’d rather pay the fines than to hire them.” “I was told that I don’t need to come to work,” and “Firms said, ‘there is nothing suitable for the disabled.’” The reality, however, is never that easy: above are the titles of news articles that portray the continuing hardship of people with disabilities. Despite the endeavors of the government to recover the lives of the disabled, many criticize that what they have done is simply not enough. Unfortunately, these criticisms are not meagre attempts of nit-picking. Beneath the façade of the master plan presented by the South Korean government, people with developmental disabilities are still suffering the inadequacy of opportunities and facing unbreakable barriers.
Why are the government’s arrows of solution continuously missing the target? To obtain realistic and practical information on the flaws of the government’s plans, The Yonsei Annals interviewed Park Yong-woo (Soph., Dept. of Psychology, Pusan National Univ.), who is suffering from developmental disability. “I am just a university student like everyone else around me. I work as the Vice Representative of our department, pull all-nighters during examination periods, and worry about my future,” Park explained. “The one difference is that I am categorized as a person with developmental disability,” he added. “Yes, I live on a wheelchair, and my hands are slower than other people. But I am capable of obtaining knowledge, reading, and writing, so my title of a disabled person has not troubled me much. However, recently I’m becoming more troubled now that I am worrying about employment,” Park commented. According to Park, he could always defeat the limitations of his physical ability with positive thoughts, but the harsh reality of the labor market is not something he could simply overcome. Revealing his concerns, he also provided insight into the practical insufficiencies of the government's employment services, commenting that they are "all too superficial."
The firm-and-worker matching service is actively in action, yet the satisfaction level of it is low in the perspective of both the employers and employees. "I am very thankful and appreciative of the efforts made by the government, but these matches are not detailed enough," Park commented. This is because institutions are too focused on increasing the number of matches and improving the statistics, to the extent that they come across as being almost forceful.
Linkage should not be the end of the story, as it does not fundamentally solve all issues that could arise within the workplace. For example, if a developmentally disabled worker like Park is employed to an office, many problems can occur. Park lives on a wheelchair, so he needs sufficient space to move around. Imagine his office is relatively small with narrow corridors and does not have an elevator; he can neither easily move around the office nor arrive to the office at his convenience. Further, he cannot reach high areas, such as a shelf, because he is sitting on the wheelchair at all times. The case of Park reflects the shortcomings of the service: it does not provide a match, but forcefully squeezes a worker into an unsuitable environment. "Of course, I will be useless in such condition," Park added with distress.
"We are not all the same." Park also pointed at the lack of analysis and sustainability in the current policies run by the government. He explained: "I am developmentally disabled, but there are different levels and types to it. Some people can only undertake simple tasks, some can do more. But the employment service programs seem to neglect such dynamics." Park, under the category of developmental disability, is in fact expected by the government programs to only conduct simple and monotonous tasks, such as sorting mails at the post office or participating in a manufacturing plant. However, he is more capable than what is demanded by these centers. Though he may be slower in speed than non-disabled workers, he can flawlessly read, write, and use computers to participate in more demanding and complex tasks in a workplace. "These programs do not attempt to analyze and understand. To them, I am just developmentally disabled, so it's reasonable for me to be doing repetitive tasks. Therefore, even if I am employed, I don't think I will be satisfied and stay in the job for long." As shown, this is a matter of sustainability. Understanding the complexity of each individuals will fill up the missing holes of the government's plan and add longevity to the solution.
The arrows are missing the target because the aims are mistaken. The superficial nature of the South Korean employment plans for persons with developmental disabilities is apparent from the interview with Park. Individuality rather than categorization, in-depth measures rather than surface-level efforts identify as the key to solving this rotten concern.
South Korea vs. Other countries
As the flaws of these theoretically sufficient policies continue to be identified, a prudent step would be to refer to the cases around the world and see what methods are employed by other nations. Below is a selection of countries that South Korea could gain insight from.
Japan’s policies for developmental disabilities are similar to those of South Korea, but they fulfill the details that Korea lacks. First and foremost, there are 64 Developmental Disability Support Centers funded by the Japanese government. To help the lives of the handicapped, Support Centers cooperate with institutions of health, medical care, welfare, education, and labor in local areas. They provide counseling services for the families, information of working sites, and programs that help to find the individual’s aptitude. Then, they assist in matching individuals with firms by offering extra subsidies to the firms who participate in this service. The Center also regularly visits the firms in the initial years to provide them with insights concerning developmental disabilities. In addition, it gives out financial aid to the firms to renovate their working areas in a way that is suitable for the disabled workers. To cater to the needs of the disabled workers, the Center also offers aftercare once the matching has been successfully conducted, continuously training the workers until they have completely settled into their work.
2. The United Kingdom:
In the early 2000s, the British Department of Health announced a policy called “Valuing people,” and has been strategizing its disability policies under such slogan ever since. One noteworthy aspect of the plan put forward by the British government is that they significantly highlight the importance of the mind. While other countries emphasize practical mechanisms of the policies and the matching system, Britain maintains a different focus: as written in the report of its “Valuing People” policy, the British officials believe that “without trusting that persons with developmental disabilities can work, one cannot provide accurate employment coaching for them.”*
Further, individual attention was also underlined in their policies. It is important to analyze the disabled persons in depth to provide an effective and successful firm-employee linkage system for them. Moreover, it also conducts life-long plans for children with developmental disorder to ensure a secure job and independence for their future. In this way, the British government emphasizes permanency of the solutions.
Germany began to rigorously participate in improving the employment rate of the disabled from the mid-2000s. Germany’s largest medium for its policies is the workshop for the disabled in Menschen, which serves as an intermediary between real occupations and the training system.
A significant number of people with developmental disorders work at these factories, mainly focusing on simple merchandizing productions. To encourage people to transfer from the workshop center to actual companies, Germany has been undergoing several projects, transferring 115 disabled people every year since 2014. The details of the projects include assistance for the post-five-years of the transfer, tax exemption, and subsidies. One special aspect of the project is that the workers are promised the right to always return to the workshop center within five years of their leave if they wish to do so. This policy is noteworthy because Korea does not guarantee a return: a significant obstacle that impedes the workers from transferring to actual companies.
Problems and solutions: social venture company Dong-gu-bat
Dong-gu-bat is a social venture located in Sungsu-dong, established with the ambition to solve the unemployment problem among developmentally disabled workers. The president of the company, Noh Soon-ho, explained to the Annals that “we may present like a charity group for persons with developmental disabilities, but I would like to introduce Dong-gu-bat as a small, organic soap-making business, which hires developmentally handicapped people as employees.” According to Noh, he did not “initiate this company with some grand expectations, attempting to change the world.” Instead, he claimed that he “met some friends with developmental disabilities through a club when he was still a student, and then [he] began to see some obvious problems within the minority group of our society.” Noh simply stated: “When you start to care, then you start to consider. That’s how Dong-gu-bat first began; I just thought ‘let’s try something.’”
The ultimate purpose of Noh’s company is to increase persistence and durability in the employment situation of these minorities. “We focus on two projects to achieve our goal. First is to hold educational programs to enhance their social abilities,” Noh explained. In addition, he informed that Dong-gu-bat began with farming projects which helps to educate the developmentally handicapped people with applicable social skills. By undergoing a one-to-one buddy system with people without disabilities, developmentally handicapped workers learn how to interact with each other, which is a significant factor in improving their adaptability in working areas. “Even after the build of our own soap-factory, this project is still very essential in what we do,” Noh added. Realistically speaking, of all the 100 people who participated in the farming program in 2017, Dong-gu-bat could only hire 10 workers, and the remaining 90 of them could not be employed by us. “So, it all comes back to the issue of adaption when they find jobs elsewhere,” Noh emphasized.
The second agenda of Dong-gu-bat is the management issue of the soap manufacturing plant. The people who work in Dong-gu-bat need not be concerned about adaptation issues as it is specially built for people with developmental difficulties: the mind-set for accepting them as workers is already implemented as a prerequisite. “Then it all comes down to our managerial ability to maintain the business. We need to sell as many products as possible, so we can continue to secure the workers we already have and employ more in the future,” said Noh. With a clear purpose to solve the inadequacies in the labor market of the developmentally disabled population, this venture company is striving to fill in the missing holes of our world, assisting the government’s seemingly theoretical attempts with more practical measures.
Like the problems identified in the interview with Park, Noh also commented on the lack of depth in the government’s plan. Noh thinks that the “hardware of the policies presented by the government is solid, but the software of it still requires refinement”: the government lacks realism in the specifics of the policies. “[The government] is heading in the right direction. When I conduct meetings with some directors of large corporations, I witness strong willingness to hire developmentally disabled people. Therefore, the idea of making employment of persons with disabilities compulsory for firms is not all valueless,” he explained. “However, these are too hypothetical. Decision-makers who are willing are in fact the furthest away from interacting with the developmentally handicapped workers, while the people who practically communicate with them in workplaces are still not prepared to widely accept them,” Noh commented, pointing out the realistic flaws. As shown, the government needs to shift and reset the focus of its policies. The advice Noh provides is that the government should enhance their existing measures by considering those who are more directly engaged in the employment market of the developmentally disabled: policies need more efforts to understand their perspectives and must have an added complexity.
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“Why are the arrows missing the target?” Every member of the society is responsible of this question. As clearly identified by the statistics and voices of the people, I, you, the government, and our society as a whole are still far from providing a good environment for the minority group to actively engage as able members of our society. Though it may be an unanswerable question, we must continue the efforts to make this world a better place. For the betterment of the labor market of the developmentally handicapped population, the next step appears to be “understanding” and “detailing.”
*UK Department of Health