Jobs for people with disabilities

The revelation last week that most national government organizations have employed far fewer people with disabilities than claimed calls into question whether the system to promote hiring of those people is effective. Based on a 1960 law, the goal is to make sure that all people, irrespective of whether they have physical, intellectual or mental disabilities, should be able to work according to their wishes and capabilities.

Along with efforts to identify how the government organs — which are supposed to set examples for private sector companies in hiring more people with disabilities — fell short of their legally mandated quotas, it should be scrutinized whether the current system is serving the law’s purpose of ending discrimination against those people by expanding job opportunities for them.

National government organizations, including ministries and agencies, had claimed that as of last year they employed some 6,900 people with disabilities, accounting for an average of 2.49 percent of their staff. But in fact, according to a government probe, they had padded the figures by including in their head counts 3,460 people with relatively minor disabilities who do not qualify for the program to promote employment of those with disabilities. People officially certified as having disabilities accounted for a mere 1.19 percent of the organizations’ workforces — well below the mandatory 2.3 percent at that time.

The government says it is “hard to determine” at this point whether the organizations intentionally cheated on the legal quota or misinterpreted the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry guideline that people with disabilities who qualify for the program must in principle bear official certificates as such. But the sheer fact that the number padding was so widespread — about 80 percent of central government organizations were involved — raises doubts as to how serious they have been in the effort to provide more employment to people with disabilities. Reports that local government organizations were engaged in similar practices point to the depth of the problem. The government says it will take immediate steps to increase the hiring of people with disabilities, but it first needs to identify why the problem has taken place.

Media reports suggested that the government bureaucracies are reluctant to hire people with disabilities because the job requires long working hours and responses to emergency situations, but that does not justify cheating on their duty under the law. The probe only examined the employment situation as of last year, but there is little doubt that the practice of padding the figures has been going on for a long time. And whatever the intention is, the practice resulted in depriving people with disabilities of the job opportunities they deserved under the program.

The law to promote employment of people with physical disabilities was enacted in 1960. In 1976, it became mandatory for private sector employers to hire people with disabilities so they would make up at least a certain portion of their workforce. The program was later expanded to cover people with intellectual disabilities, and in April those with mental disabilities were included. The mandatory employment rate has also been gradually raised over the years, currently set at 2.5 percent for national and local government organizations and 2.2 percent for private sector firms. The rate is higher for government organizations because they must lead the effort to hire more people with disabilities under the law. Private sector firms are fined if they fail to meet the mandatory rate, while the government organizations are not — because they’re supposed to lead the pack.

Although the number of people with disabilities on the payrolls of private sector firms hit a record 496,000 last year, only about half the companies under the obligation to employ those people have cleared the minimum rate, and job opportunities for them remain limited among small and medium-size firms. The problem that surfaced among the government organizations must not discourage the private sector efforts to boost employment of people with disabilities.

The problem should also trigger broad discussions as to whether the current system under the 1960 law is effective enough to expand the job opportunities for people with disabilities. Not only whether the mandatory employment rate is high enough, but also whether the employment quota alone is enough, should be looked into. The effort should not be just about employers meeting the mandatory rate but securing opportunities for people with disabilities to realize their full potential on the job. The latest problem should prompt us to think about what’s lacking in the current program in order to help more people with disabilities lead independent life with decent jobs.