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Disabled still face barriers in Switzerland


People with disabilities in Switzerland are better represented in the workforce than in other countries but still face more obstacles than the general population.

As the country marks the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Wednesday, groups are urging people to give those with disabilities a chance, not only at work but in society as a whole.

Switzerland’s first set of indicators on equality for disabled people, released by the Federal Statistics Office just ahead of the UN day, show that there are almost one million people living with some form of disability in Switzerland – that’s around one in seven of the population.

In all, 64 per cent are termed to be in the workforce, although this figure, which uses approved definitions, actually includes those seeking work. The real employment figure is 59 per cent.

“I was quite astonished because a lot of disabled people work,” Pascale Gazareth from the statistics office told swissinfo.

The rate appears to be higher than in other European countries. A 2001 Eurostat survey put the European average at 24 per cent of the severely disabled and 46 per cent of the moderately disabled.

A 2006 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study had put Switzerland at around 52 per cent employment for disabled people.

Gazareth says that one explanation is that overall employment is high in Switzerland. “Because the economic situation is good there are a lot of jobs, also for people who do not have quite such high productivity,” she explained.


But the employment rate is much lower than the 84 per cent for the population, proof that more integration is needed, said Mark Zumbühl from the non-profit disability organisation Pro Infirmis.

“On the one hand there is still the fact that persons with disabilities cannot do every job, but there are also barriers in employers’ heads,” Zumbühl told swissinfo.

Works needs to be done to reduce these barriers, says Zumbühl. He tells the story of an advert he saw in England, where the personnel department was hesitating over employing a young woman with Down’s Syndrome, saying the boss wouldn’t like it. The boss came in and, already impressed by her CV, hired her on the spot.

“This is a nice story to illustrate that you have to see the person and not the disability,” he said.

Mobility issue

Mobility and access to buildings is also an issue of concern, said Zumbühl. The statistics office figures show that ten per cent of disabled people have problems with public transport.

Other countries such as France, Germany and the United States are all much further ahead, he said. This is partly because, unlike Switzerland, these countries had to deal with war invalids, said Zumbühl.

Switzerland has enshrined the principle of equality for disabled people into its constitution. An anti-discrimination law has been in force since 2004.

On an international level, the country has not signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons, which came into force in May this year.

The convention, called a “turning point” by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, forms the theme of this year’s International Day.

The Swiss government has said that adhering to the convention is “desirable”, but that it wants to find out how it fits in with the legal system first. This, says Zumbühl, is purely a formality before signing up.

Challenging opinions

Much of Pro Infirmis’ work has centred around challenging accepted opinions of disabled people. One poster campaign showed disabled children acting out their dreams, such as being a ballerina or footballer.

The message seems to be getting through. One of the events planned for the International Day is at the St Germain nightclub in Zurich’s exclusive Bahnhofstrasse.

The owners have given over the club to Pro Infirmis for the night, which has invited around 150 people with mental disabilities for a party.

“It shows that people from the club scene are concerned and want to make efforts in this direction and that’s really good,” said Zumbühl.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich

64% of disabled people are involved in the workplace (compared with 84% of the population). 65% are worried about their jobs (57% population).

53% take part in associations (65% population). 10% have problems with public transport (1% population).

Around 850,000 people are classified disabled in Switzerland (with severe and moderate limitations). 36,971 people live in institutions. In the EU (2001) it was about the same percentage of the population at 14.5% of 15-64 year olds (France: 15.3%, Germany 17.3%, Britain 18.9%).

Source: Federal Statistics Office, 2008

This UN day is held on December 3 each year with the aim of promoting understanding of disability issues and mobilising support. It also seeks to increase awareness of the benefits of integrating persons with disabilities into everyday life.

The theme is based on the goal of full and equal enjoyment of human rights and participation in society by persons with disabilities. Around 10% of the world’s population, or 650 million people, live with disabilities.

2008 is a significant year given the entry into force on May 3 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which sets out the legal obligations of Member States to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities. The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is also being marked this year with the same theme.

Swiss groups are marking the day with various events and a call for disabled people to live more independently rather than in residential care homes.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR