Organisation - June 20, 2019

Working with a disability - ‘It’s a question of knowing your limits’

Text:
Tessa Louwerens
2

Like all educational institutions, Wageningen has got to create jobs for people with a disability. The process has its ups and downs and the 2018 target of 136 was missed by a long way. But there are success stories too.

Text Tessa Louwerens photos Aldo Allessie and Roger Cremers

Anja van Druten had been working for an insurance company for 40 years when she was made redundant after a reorganization. Her disability made it very hard for her to find a job. ‘Nobody was eager to take on a 60-year-old who could only work a maximum of 16 hours a week because of rheumatic diseases.’ The Jobs Agreement Act came to the rescue and Van Druten got a ‘participation job’ at WUR (see inset). ‘I do odd jobs for different departments, like digitizing dossiers or looking for additional information.’

New approach

WUR is required by law to create jobs for people like Van Druten. The institution currently has 31 such jobs, which is well below the legal quota, set at 136 for 2018. Human Resources Manager Els Dieleman is currently studying why there are still so few participation jobs. ‘Up to now we tried to spread these employees over the different science groups, but that is far too disjointed,’ she explains. ‘And it doesn’t help that the research institutes have been having a hard time financially for the past few years.’

According to Dieleman, a radical change of approach is called for. In order to table a workable proposal, she is looking for good examples of employees with a disability who work successfully within WUR. ‘I want to hear about the experiences of these staff and their colleagues, to find out how a team can make sure it works.’

Made-to-measure 

Wopkje de Kroon, an internal job coach at the Social Sciences Group, helps people with a disability to find a suitable job at WUR. Each placement is made-to-measure, she says. ‘Some of these people have been out of work for years and they are often extremely nervous about a job interview. I hold informal interviews to get to know each other, focussing on the possibilities and not on the disabilities. People can often do the work just as well, but they might need a quiet workplace or a shorter working day. This idea of starting your search by looking at the person rather than the job description still needs to take root in WUR.’


Participation jobs

With a view to helping people with a disability to get jobs, the Dutch government decreed in the Jobs Agreement Act (formerly the Participation Act) that between 2013 and 2026, a total of 125,000 participation jobs should be created, 25,000 of them in the government or semi-government sectors. It is up to municipalities or the social security agency UWV to determine who qualifies for such jobs. Their names go into the Target group register. Because the target for 2026 is most unlikely to be reached, a Quota law was passed in 2018, stipulating that employers must make a certain percentage of their jobs participation jobs. From 2022, employers that don’t fulfil their quotas will face a fine of 5000 euros per job they failed to create per year.


‘I find hard deadlines and phone calls difficult’

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Daan van Buuren, administrator in the Liaison Office, department of Social Sciences (24 hours per week)

‘I used to dream of becoming a judge, but that proved impossible, partly because of my disability. When I was 18 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s, nowadays known as the autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). First I studied Social and Legal Services and then I did an applied sciences degree in law, but I didn’t finish it. After that I did voluntary work for a while.

I came to WUR more than a year ago through a participation vacancy. My colleagues know I have a disability but I try to avoid the word autism. Not that it’s a secret, but autism is a very broad term and it means different things to different people. Also, it makes it look as though you are passing on the responsibility to other people and expecting them to adjust. I don’t think that’s very realistic. I have to learn to deal with it myself.

I try to see what effect my autism has. Where does it cause problems? And how could my colleagues help with that, specifically? For example, I can’t do a lot of things at the same time, and I have difficulty with hard deadlines. I find phone calls difficult too, because I don’t know exactly what people are going to ask. So that’s something I’d rather not do. But there are so many other things that I can do or can learn to do. I concentrate on those.

At the Liaison Office we maintain contracts, with research financiers, for instance. I do all sorts of support tasks, like making sure the dossiers are in order and complete. I really like the legal side of it: finding out what the rules are and looking into what they mean and whether it’s right. That goes very well, although I do notice that colleagues sometimes find it hard to delegate to me. It doesn’t always save time because by the time they’ve explained it to me, they could have done it themselves. But it’s a one-off investment.’


‘There are periods when pain keeps me awake at night’

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Arie Brouwer, administrator at the Environmental Economy and Natural Resources chair group (about 15 hours per week)

‘I was diagnosed in 2009 with trigeminus neuralgia, or chronic facial pain. A nerve is trapped in my brain and that causes severe pain – in my jaw, for instance. It got gradually worse and I haven’t been able to work since 2011. Three years ago I had brain surgery and it got a bit better after that. The pain hasn’t gone away but I get fewer attacks. I could face the idea of returning to work again. I started at WUR in 2018, and to my surprise I was back in the world I had left 15 years earlier. I worked here as an interdisciplinary researcher until 2004, specializing in local social security.

My job involves a wide variety of tasks. I take minutes, I write for the website, I manage the website and I facilitate the data management. Some of this goes quite smoothly, but in other parts of the work I am not up to speed yet. My colleagues know I have a disability; I don’t make a secret of that. They are flexible about it. I have good days and bad days. There are periods when the pain keeps me awake at night. It often gets better in the course of the morning. Just after being diagnosed, I sometimes worked 60 hours a week, but I paid a heavy price for that. It isn’t a question of toughening up, but of knowing your limits and getting rest in time. I have accepted that.

The Quota Law, which forces employers to create participation jobs, is a useful stick to threaten them with, but the workforce has to want it too. I think WUR could do better at showing what the potential is, and could more actively identify tasks that would be suitable.’


‘It’s nice that the work is flexible’

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Anja van Druten, of the staff at the Social Sciences department (16 hours per week)

‘It was hard to find a new job, because nobody was eager to take on a 60-year-old who can only work 16 hours a week. That’s because I’ve had rheumatic disorders of both my muscles and my bones since I was 24. I worked for a life insurance company from the age of 16. During a reorganization I was made redundant, after which I was unemployed for three years and worked as a volunteer in a hospice. I’ve been working for WUR since 2018. I do odd jobs for different departments, such as digitizing dossiers or looking for additional information. At the moment I also work in the office because one of the secretaries is off sick long-term.

It’s nice that the work is flexible. Because of my rheumatic disorders I am in pain all the time and I get tired quickly. I don’t feel under pressure now; in my previous job I had to work by the clock and your output was constantly being measured. That puts a lot of pressure on people who can’t keep up. My husband is working part-time too now. That’s nice because we take it in turns looking after the dog.

The work here is nice and varied and I like being with people. From time to time people who have participation jobs at WUR get together and exchange experiences. Wopkje de Kroon is my job coach. She divides the tasks among the different staff members. Wopkje also does a lot to draw attention to this group of people. But it’s the same as in any big company: when there’s a new development and people are not sure what to expect, they find it hard to pass on work. I always try to explain that I can do my work just as well, in spite of my disability. It’s just that I work fewer hours.’ 

Re:actions 2

  • Kim Ferguson

    Just a correction above, after going to the Aula today for a defense, there is a second chairlift that can handle 225kg and may be enough. This wasn't mentioned when I inquired over phone. For other examples at the WUR, there's the lack of sidewalk between the Campus Atlas busstop and buildings like Gaia, as well as certain accessible bathrooms being placed behind lab access-only doors. So I correct myself now with regards to the chair lift (a happy correction). Cheers.

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  • Kim Ferguson

    I’m a PhD candidate, and am disabled as well as a chronically ill person. I am also an advocate for other disabled folks in science, whether it’s talking about my experiences on Twitter (#disabledinSTEM, a guest on the @chron_ac Twitter account, etc.) or giving workshops to other scientists about ableism in science (“validisme” in Dutch). Therefore, to see people like myself interviewed in the Resource, it is a huge step towards visibility. I want to commend Daan van Burren, Arie Brouwer, and Anja van Druten for coming forward and sharing their experiences with the Wageningen community – thank you.

    That being said, there is more to be done, here at Wageningen University, and in The Netherlands in general. Arie alluded to this in his interview with regards to the Quota Law that WUR could do better, and I wholeheartedly agree. Aside from the dismal numbers that are briefly mentioned in the article, there are other issues with regards to accessibility of the university and ableism with the WUR and science in general. Cultural, structural, and interactional ableism are at play throughout Dutch society (and the world in general, to varying degrees), and I believe that WUR needs to address them head on.

    I have plenty of examples, as do other disabled employees and students, and I encourage the university to seek out our voices and listen to our experiences.
    As one example, the Aula is not a wheelchair accessible facility. Yes, there is a chair lift to get to the second floor, I’ve been told with some concession. Except that it has a weight limit of 100kg, which anyone with a power wheelchair or of a larger size knows is not enough. There is no elevator. If anyone wishing to access the upper floor of our iconic lecture hall is unable to use the chair lift, whether due to weight restriction, physical limits, or dignity, they will be directed to watch from the televisions downstairs. How is this acceptable? Because it is certainly not accessible. And this is only the situation of a guest or family member, what will the university do when it’s an MSc student, PhD candidate, or Professor? This is but one example, and it’s important to note that accessibility and inclusion of disabled folks goes beyond considering wheelchair access.

    In 2016, the Netherlands ratified the Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. In Dutch it is often referred to as the VN-Verdrag handicap, and requires active participation in its implementation (see https://www.mensenrechten.nl/en/node/918, in Dutch). The European Accessibility Act from the EU has begun its transition period; national governments have three years to integrate the act into national law. So there are more sticks coming to encourage the WUR to improve and support its disabled workers and students. With some effort and leadership, WUR could transform into an accessible and inclusive campus and workplace. To do so, it will need to include the disabled folks who study, work, and live here, otherwise it will be meaningless.

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