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Lessons from the 2017 International Disability Employment Forum in South Korea

Brendan Roach and Eona Kim in Seoul

Brendan Roach, Senior Disability Consultant at Business Disability Forum, in Seoul with Eona Kim, Deputy Director of Employment Development Institute (EDI).

By Brendan Roach

I was in Seoul, South Korea earlier this month to speak at the 2017 International Disability Employment Forum.

The three-day event was organised by the Korea Employment Agency for the Disabled (KEAD) and the Korean Ministry of Employment and Labor. KEAD, which provides services for both people with disabilities and employers such as job placements, vocational training and assistive technology support, is working hard to ensure that Korea’s disabled job seekers benefit from the new President Moon Jae-in’s administration’s flagship job creation strategy.

The forum bought together experts from around the world in order to share successes and challenges relating to a number of elements of disability and employment strategy.

Here are some of the interesting points that came out of the discussions over the three days.


Day one: Mandatory employment systems (or quotas)

On day one of the forum, policy leads from Japan, Germany and South Korea shared successes and challenges regarding to their country’s quota systems.

Quotas are an interesting topic for me as the UK abandoned its own ineffective quota system in 1995 with the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act (now the Equality Act 2010) which banned discrimination in a number of areas including recruitment and employment.

It was interesting to hear Peter Mozet (Head of division ‘Policy towards persons with severe disabilities’ at the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in Germany) explain that whilst employment rates of people with disabilities in Germany is increasing, it’s impossible to assess the impact of the quota given that it’s just one of a number of disability-related labour market interventions.

During the session, we heard that around 50% of private companies in South Korea don’t comply with the quota. It was also suggested that employers in Germany spend around €500 million a year on fines for non-compliance with the quota – a stark figure which highlights the extent of the waste of both human potential and money. It made me wonder how many of Business Disability Forum’s global members know how much they spend on levies for non-compliance with quotas on a country by country basis?


Day two: Employment services, vocational training and employer case studies

On the second day we discussed Japan, Germany and South Korea’s approaches to employment services and vocational training.

One of the reasons that Business Disability Forum was founded over 25 years ago was that initiatives aimed at supporting people with disabilities into employment often failed to take into account the needs of employers. I was keen to hear the examples of how different services were working with employers. For example:

  • In response to Korean business leaders’ concerns that they can’t find qualified candidates with disabilities, KEAD now co-design training courses with employers in order to ensure that trainees are equipped with the skills that businesses need. Training is then delivered in partnership with employers at KEAD’s ‘Individualised Training Centre’.
  • The Vocational Training Department of Japan’s National Vocational Rehabilitation Center provides training for managers and colleagues to help them feel confident and knowledgeable in work with disabled colleagues.

Employer case studies

Brendan Roach speaking at the 2017 International Disability Employment Forum

Brendan Roach speaking at the 2017 International Disability Employment Forum

The employers represented at the Forum varied in approach, although all specialised in the employment of people with disabilities. For example, Samhall AB, a state-owned company in Sweden, has a mandate to create work that furthers the development of people with disabilities and Hanuri (a subsidiary of Korean firm LG Electronics) employs a large proportion of disabled workers and was established specifically to help LG meet its obligations under the Korean quota system.

The theme of inclusion in the mainstream labour market ran through much of the discussion between employers. For example:

  • Hanuri struggle to retain skilled employees because they want to work for mainstream employers either to develop their career or because they fear stigma as a result of working for an employer that is known for specifically for hiring people with disabilities.
  • Samhall must ensure that 1100 employees transition from sheltered employment into mainstream employment every year.


Day three: Changes in social environment and the employment of people with disabilities


On day three, I was part of a panel which discussed future challenges for disability and employment such as an aging population, mental ill-health, economic downturn and technological advances.

Disability and aging

Kazuyuki Kokubun (Director, Employment Development and Promotion Dept. Japan Organization for Employment of the Elderly, Persons with Disabilities and Jobseekers) shared the Japanese government’s employment strategy regarding the twin challenges of the country’s low birth rate and rapidly aging population. In addition to encouraging wellbeing initiatives, the government is also encouraging employers to adopt the approach of making workplace adjustments (e.g. changes to how, when or where work is done) for older employees.

This focus on making workplace adjustments for older workers mirrors the approach of leading Business Disability Forum members who apply their disability know-how to recruiting and retaining older workers.

Mental health

Christopher Prinz (Senior Policy Analyst, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) highlighted mental-health related policy challenges in a number of areas including workplaces and employers. Christopher highlighted the importance of:

  • Raising awareness and competence among management and co-workers.
  • Promoting employee assistance programmes.
  • Ensuring that occupational health advisers have strong psychological expertise.
  • Developing a robust approach to managing sickness abse
    nce which includes a strong focus on return-to-work support.

These recommendations certainly chime with our approach at Business Disability Forum, where we advocate a three pronged approach to managing mental health at work that focuses on both proactive and responsive measures and on creating cultural change. You can read more about our approach here.


Future of work



My own presentation focused on the potential impact on disability and employment of economic downturn and future industrial changes such as the digital era.

It’s clear that technological developments bring both challenges and opportunities for employers and employees with disabilities. In terms of the benefits:

  • Technology can liberate the potential of employees with disabilities. For example screen reader software enables visually impaired colleagues to access the internet and sign language users can now access real-time sign language interpretation via their tablet device rather than having to rely on booking an interpreter to attend a meeting in person.
  • Digital advances means that employees are increasingly able to work remotely which might enable employees with disabilities to manage their work and impairment more effectively as a result of having greater control over how, where and when work is carried out.

Technology doesn’t always liberate though. For example:

  • There is often a lack of awareness about the availability of technical adjustments on the part of both individuals and employers.
  • The legacy systems used by large organisations are often inaccessible and expensive to retrofit.
  • Inaccessible online recruitment websites can mean that some talented applicants with disabilities don’t get passed the application phase.

To support businesses to navigate these challenges, Business Disability Forum’s Technology Taskforce (a group of some of the world’s largest suppliers and procurers of technology) has created an Accessible Technology Charter and Accessibility Maturity Model to help organisations measure and improve their performance.

Look out for more from Business Disability Forum on the future of work as it relates to disability in 2018.


On the way home

As I headed home from a fascinating three days, I reflected on some of the learning for Business Disability Forum’s global members and what might represent common principles for the variety of stakeholders and nationalities represented at the Forum.

Certainly for Business Disability Forum’s global members, it will be important to:

  • Ensure that you have a clear understanding of the quota requirements of each country in which you operate and develop a strategy for recruiting more talented employees with disabilities. This means access to wider pool of talent and paying less in fines.
  • The strategy should aim to make mainstream recruitment processes as accessible as possible and to identify local agencies who understand your resourcing requirements and equip candidates with disabilities with the skills your business needs.
  • Understand and address specific regional and local demographic issues. For example, a strategy to retain an aging workforce is clearly a priority in Japan, North America and much of Europe but may not be your most pressing concern in say Africa or the Middle East.

More generally, it was clear that wherever there is focus on disability and employment it will be vital that:

  • Action is taken to the change attitudes of business and the wider public and that negative stereotypes and low expectations of people with disabilities are routinely and robustly challenged.
  • Job seekers with disabilities are equipped with the skills required by today and tomorrow’s employers.
  • Employers are positioned as a valued customer in any initiative designed to support people with disabilities into work. They also need access to practical guidance and support in order to turn commitment into meaningful action.

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