By Thin Lei Win
AARHUS, Denmark (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Jeanett Dian Amonsen was a high-flying TV journalist with a state broadcaster when a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at 40 derailed her career.
Lars Holstein was about to turn 30 and studying law when a car accident left him in a wheelchair.
These turns of events were frightening and disorientating, they said, even in a developed country like Denmark with a comprehensive social welfare system.
“Before my accident, I always could find jobs. No problem. Afterwards, it was very hard,” said Holstein, now 55, shaking his head.
Both credit their current employer, Huset Venture, Denmark’s largest social enterprise – where nearly all of the staff has disabilities – with giving them back their sense of self-worth.
Huset is part of a wider global trend of social enterprises – firms that aim to do good as well as make a profit – that strive to build more inclusive workforces by hiring people with disabilities who may otherwise have limited job prospects.
Canada’s The Raw Carrot employs people on disability benefits to cook gourmet soups, and Singapore’s WISE hires those with disabilities to design leather bags.
U.S.-based software testing company Aspiritech touts the special qualities of its staff who have autism and Asperger’s syndrome.
British tech firm Auticon also employs people with autism and works with big companies such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and global law firm Linklaters to improve the diversity of workforces along their supply chains.
Social enterprises could be natural, at least at first, for such workers because traditional companies assume hiring people with special needs is too difficult, said Craig Brown, who manages Trojan Mailing, based in southern England.
“As long as how you interact with them is done appropriately, they don’t need any more special requirements than any other employees,” said Brown, whose design and printing company employs people with learning difficulties and mental health issues.
“They’re told for a lot of their lives they are unable to actually achieve, and that they are never going to contribute properly… But they have a diligence that if I could bottle I’d be a millionaire.”
Huset, based in Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city, has four branches across the country, offering services including graphic design, advertising, accounting, IT and computer repair, and socially and environmentally sustainable corporate gifts.
“Normally, out in society, I feel disabled, but here, I don’t,” said Holstein, who has worked at Huset since it was first established 20 years ago.
Amonsen, who cannot work more than 20 hours a week and has problems balancing herself when walking, agreed. She is Huset’s head of communications.
“To have a job is very important in this society. If you don’t have work then you don’t feel worthy. It’s even more important today, I think, than 10 or 20 years ago,” she said.
In Denmark, organisations like Huset are needed more than ever, both Amonsen and Holstein said, because Danish society has become more competitive and less tolerant of anyone perceived as not pulling their weight.
In the past, there was a strong security net and little social stigma for people who were out of work for short periods, Holstein said, but now those not working full-time, including people with special needs, are seen in a different light.
“In people’s eyes, we are a cost for society. When people meet me, they think I am a cost, without knowing if I have a job or not,” he added.
Sif Holst, deputy chairwoman of Disabled People’s Organisations Denmark (DPOD), which represents 34 disability groups, said such experiences are becoming more common.
“There’s this stress in society… you always have to become better and perform better, and be at your optimal all the time,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
BUSINESS, NOT CHARITY
Denmark, like its Nordic neighbours, is under pressure to maintain a cherished welfare model that includes free healthcare and education for every citizen amid soaring costs.
The nation of 5.7 million people has cut unemployment benefits and sick leave in the past 10 years, Holst said.
There are no official estimates of how many disabled people live in Denmark, but surveys based on thousands of people show they have fewer opportunities in both education and employment, she added.
Between 2012 and 2016, the percentage of disabled people completing vocational or higher education fell to 66 percent from 74 percent, while education levels for those without disabilities rose to 86 percent from 84 percent, Holst said.
Similarly, a little more than one out of two disabled people had jobs in 2016, while four in five able-bodied people were employed, DPOD figures showed.
Such challenges were what drove the founding of Huset.
It was set up in 1999 by a group of students at a school for the disabled in Aarhus who were frustrated at the lack of jobs for them.
The main branch of Huset now occupies three floors of an industrial building in the town’s outskirts. Many of its clients are small, local companies.
Huset has 170 employees, 95 percent of whom cannot work full-time due to sickness or disability, ranging from deafness and blindness to living with bipolar disorder.
The company said it also receives government grants to train people with disabilities to prepare them for jobs.
While Huset is now well established within Denmark, only some of its business units are profitable, said director Inge Bak, though she would not disclose details.
The aim is to make Huset fully self-sufficient, but that is a challenge when most of the employees are unable to work more than 15 or 20 hours per week, said communications head Amonsen.
“What they can do is as good (as anyone) but they can only work a little. It’s hard to do business normally, but harder when you have a lot of people working reduced hours.”
Bak said the ethos has always been about support and inclusion, with a focus on making it sustainable. She stressed that Huset was “not a charity” but a business.
“We think that even if you can only work 10 hours a week, you have skills the labour market needs. It’s just a question of matching job and skills,” she said.