Former United States President Bill Clinton has thrown his weight behind a pioneering programme to integrate more disabled people into the Swiss workforce.
A scheme run by St Gallen University aims to reduce the burden on the country's disability insurance scheme, inject more value into the economy and enhance the quality of life for disabled people.
Clinton was on hand in St Gallen on Thursday to help launch the Center for Disability and Integration. He told the assembled audience that the multi-disciplinary research programme would "change the sense of what it means to be disabled".
Clinton added that the work of the new department would help to "shift from a system of helplessness to a system of empowerment, and to change the attitudes of society about how we should see the potential of people and how much we need to develop that potential".
Switzerland currently has around 300,000 people registered with a disability insurance scheme that is running a SFr13 billion ($12.8 billion) deficit.
Insurance hole plugged
Voters backed an initiative in September to temporarily raise value added tax (VAT) to help cover the deficit. Politicians have voiced determination to get thousands of disabled people back into work – also one of the stated intentions of the new Center.
"The more productive your economy, the more painfully obvious it is that it is a dumb thing not to provide the type of services that this Center provides," Clinton said on Thursday. "I have never seen any situation that would not be improved by empowering more people with disabilities – to get an education, to develop more skills and to move into the workforce."
The Center will combine the talents of management experts, economists and psychologists in a drive to provide solutions that will get more disabled people into work. It will also look into why the disability insurance scheme is under such strain and will attempt to explain the recent phenomenon of rising numbers of people with psychological disabilities.
Center co-director Stephan Böhm told swissinfo.ch that part of the task would be to change stereotypical thinking.
"The word disability is sometimes stigmatised, but for many employees their disability is not a handicap at work," he said. "There might be someone who has a problem with sitting and they just need to stand to be as qualified to do the work as others."
"Companies can profit if they put people into teams where their disability does not make a difference but their input does."
Mixed company reaction
Representatives of one Swiss manufacturing company – Federtechnik Kaltbrunn and Wangs - and German retail chain Metro Group were on hand to outline their commitment to integrating disabled people into the workplace.
But Böhm said the attitude of companies in Switzerland was mixed.
"We have some examples of companies who are doing a pretty good job, but others are not interested in this topic just yet. It will be our goal to show these companies how they can profit from integrating such people," he told swissinfo.ch.
The Center for Disability and Integration was set up with the help of the Germany-based foundation MyHandicap, that offers advice and contacts through its successful website to help people cope with their disabilities. Bill Clinton is a patron of the foundation.
Matthew Allen in St Gallen, swissinfo.ch
Disabled workers in Switzerland
A Federal Statistics Office report in 2008 looked in depth at the situation of disabled people and the workforce.
Around 850,000 people living in their own home are classified disabled in Switzerland (with severe and moderate limitations). Another 37,000 people live in institutions for the disabled. The percentage was roughly the same in the EU (2001), with 14.5% of 15-64 year olds (France: 15.3%, Germany 17.3%, Britain 18.9%).
Some 300,000 people were claiming disability insurance at the beginning of 2009.
The 2008 Federal Statistics Office report found that 64% of disabled people were in the labour market (compared with 84% of the general population).
However, only 59% actually had jobs, against 80% of the non-disabled.
Of those in work, 65% were worried about losing their jobs, against 57% of the non-disabled population).
A 2006 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study had put Switzerland at around 52 per cent employment for disabled people.