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Removing one barrier at a time    Dec 03, 2018

Removing one barrier at a time
Dec 03, 2018


Prof. dr. Koen VAN LAER



Over 1 billion people in the world live with some form of impairment, of whom approximately 1 in 5 experience extensive difficulties in functioning. With its prevalence on the rise, due to the ageing of our population and the global increase in chronic health conditions, the scale of this group will only keep increasing. Disabled people have to battle on a daily basis against poorer health outcomes, higher rates of poverty and less economic participation. Today on the ‘International Day of Disabled Persons’ we talk to professor Koen Van Laer and dr. Frederike Scholz. They are two of the researchers of the SEIN research group who study the inclusion of disabled people within the context of organizations and the labor market.


“We are more disabled by the society that we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses.” – Stella Young. 

People with an impairment experience various barriers when they try to gain access to areas of life that many of us take for granted, such as employment. It is at this moment that their impairment becomes a disability. This results in the employment rate of disabled people in Flanders being over 36 % lower than those of people without an impairment. Despite the magnitude of the problem, both scientific information and awareness on the matter are still lacking. This is something our UHasselt researchers want to change.

“Becoming disabled can occur to anyone at any given time, as most people acquire an impairment during their lifetime when they are active within the labor market, rather than being born with it”, says dr. Frederike Scholz. “But even after acquiring an impairment, people should be able to keep contributing to society.”

“This can be very difficult for them due to the many obstacles they face”, Prof. Van Laer explains. “These participation problems are not simply the result of individuals’ impairments but rather of the interaction between these impairments and contextual factors such as policies that are not adapted to fit their needs, HR processes that indirectly discriminate them or the prejudice of colleagues and employers towards people with an impairment.”


“We work in the tradition of the social model of disability”, dr. Scholz tells us. “This means that our starting point is that contextual barriers are crucial to understanding the position of disabled people in the labor market. However, in addition to exposing these barriers, we also take a closer look at their effects on the individual experiences of disabled job-seekers or employees, which can be physical complaints but also psychological effects, like for example loss of confidence. We want to unravel the hidden processes behind the numbers by talking to the actual people as they are the ones who are experiencing all of this.” 

“Our research is indeed qualitative by nature”, Prof. Van Laer agrees. “There are two approaches that we often take in order to obtain data. The first one is through case studies in organizations, where we interview different stakeholders in order to understand how the way of working, culture, and HR-policies of the organization are all connected to the inclusion of disabled employees. Sometimes it can be challenging to find organizations that are willing to participate, given our research can confront them with what is going wrong and should be improved. Yet, in the end, our research is useful for managers, as our findings can help organizations recruit more talented people, motivate them and allow them to work in the most optimal way.”

“The second approach is to interview specific groups of disabled people because only they can tell us about their personal experiences of facing discrimination or exclusion within the labor market”, dr. Scholz picks up. “These are people with an impairment that range from job seekers and employment advisors to employees and entrepreneurs. We ask them about their careers, which barriers they face, what their emotional response is to these barriers, how they interact with various stakeholders and what their work environment implements to accommodate them. Through all this gathered information we can construct new theories and translate them to practical recommendations for employers and policy makers on different levels, as our research is not a one-way conversation.”


“In the end, the ambition of our research is to expose and remove the barriers to participation in the job market for disabled people. This is beneficial to all involved parties: disabled people, employers, and society as a whole. We cannot longer overlook the millions of people with an impairment who are denied access to a job and never get the chance to use and show their talents. Through our research we hope to give disabled people a voice, provide insights to policy makers and managers, and contribute to more inclusive workplaces and labor markets”, Prof. Van Laer concludes.


The research group SEIN is part of the faculty of Business Economics. Their mission is to conducts fundamental and applied research on diversity, (in)equality, identity and inclusion. The research of SEIN covers the economic, social and ethical dimensions of diversity. SEIN also supports actions that promote equality and inclusion.