For years Estonia has had the increasing problem of rising numbers of persons receiving pension for incapacity for work and persons with disabilities, as well as sustainability of the social system. Various institutions (the National Audit Office, the Praxis Centre for Policy Studies, the OECD, the European Commission, etc.) have made recommendations to reform the current systems already several years ago, or people’s coping ability will increasingly worsen. The criticism of the system that had been in place until the middle of 2014 was that it increased non-activity and passivity, as it did not support people’s activity, nor did it motivate them to return to labour market.
One of the macro-level indicators of health and quality of life is the proportion of people with official incapacity for work and disability in the population. This proportion does not necessarily show quality of life but it does talk of need. As of beginning of 2014 people with disability formed 10.9% of the population, consisting of 144,136 persons. According to calculations of the Estonian National Social Insurance Board this figure has begun to decrease, and as of the end of second quarter of 2015 the number of recipients of various disability aid was 141,802. However, in order to understand the socio-economic situation, and to clarify the target group, we must also consider the number of persons receiving pension for incapacity for work. The target groups of persons receiving pension for incapacity for work and working age persons with disabilities are partly the same; upon assessment about half of persons receiving pension for incapacity for work have also been given a degree of disability. If as of beginning of 2014 there were 94,325 persons of working age (ages 16–62) who had been determined to have incapacity for work in the extent of 40–100%, then as of the end of second quarter of 2015 this figure had risen to 96,631.
However, most of the persons with disabilities are older. This is due to general aging of the population and the rise of average life expectancy – the larger the proportion of older people in population, the more there are people among them with long-term illnesses. A lot of the disabilities are due to changes due to aging and they occur at a later age. Unfortunately, the older persons with disabilities have remained out of focus, and also in the period under observation no significant steps have been taken to improve their situation. The carer to the kin have also been left out of the target group – they themselves do not have a disability, but they have a great role in guaranteeing the life quality of persons with disabilities, and unfortunately they themselves are the potential persons to have disability in the future and become persons receiving pension for incapacity for work.
The local governments also have an important role, in addition to the state, in guaranteeing coping of persons receiving pension for incapacity for work and persons with disability. And yet the capacity of the local government to support those who need help differs greatly, and accessibility of help varies greatly, depending on the local government, which is why people are treated unequally.
Political and institutional developments
The buzzword for 2014 was definitely the Work Capacity Reform. The principles of the Work Capacity Reform had been set the year before, setting the goal of helping working age people with damage to health and persons with disability in finding and keeping suitable work. It was also thought necessary to motive people to be active within the boundaries of the capacity for work they had retained and offer employers help in improving the work environment and hiring people with diminished capacity for work as well as keeping them employed.
All the parties – persons with damage to health, persons with disability, employers, specialists, national officers – understand that initiating a major social reform is unavoidable as the old system is about to collapse in the near future.
Work that is suitable for the ability of persons with disability or damage to health enables a significantly better income and quality of life than aid and pensions. It is not possible to guarantee a quality of life comparable to healthy working persons solely on these. A suitable and pleasant work also offers social and processional self-realisation. One of the basic needs and rights of a person is the chance to decide about his or her life. One of the goals of the Work Capacity Reform is to have at least 50% of persons with partial capacity for work to be employed.
The employers are in the situation where they are lacking employees – the population is aging, the number of people incapable for work is increasing, there are no new employees coming up as the birth rate has steadily decreased, emigration is considerable. Therefore, the employers have realised that persons with damage to health and persons with disability are an untapped resource; persons with disability are often considered more motivated and loyal. At the same time, they shouldn’t create illusions for themselves as by nature people are similar despite their health condition or disability.
The state’s goal in initiating the Work Capacity Reform is primarily to decrease the growth of social expenses and have more tax payers by including the target group in employment. This naturally requires investment in education and rehabilitation, however, if before the growth of cost in state budget on pension for incapacity for work and disability allowance was prognosed to go from 253.1 million euros in 2014 to 619.9 million euros in 2022, then the new system would slow down the growth and the estimated cost would be 405.5 million euros in 2022; thereby saving 214.4 million euros.
The point of departure is a good one – all parties understand the inevitability of reform. And yet all still have very different expectations and understanding, which have to be worked on to make more similar. The society’s outdated view of people who need help is also very slow to change. However, the change within the past year has been noticeable (and the huge work of organisations of people with disabilities in making themselves visible and bringing awareness to the problems is also behind this). First of all, the employers’ fears based on lack of knowledge have to be reduced, as does the thinking of people with disabilities have to be changed. From the point of view of human rights people with disabilities are not “the poor sad people”, who have to be helped, but equal members of society who have the same rights and some special needs to be considered. Protection of rights of people with disabilities is not a choice dependent on discretion of the state, but a duty stemming from human rights. This means that the society must guarantee people with disabilities the chance to participate in the life of the society as independently as possible and create the opportunity to stand up for their rights when necessary.
Successful initiation of the Work Capacity Reform requires a complex approach to the entire set of problems. A lot more has to be contributed to the education system, every person with a disability must have the best possible education, which also takes his or her interests and abilities into consideration. Estonian Ministry of Education and Research has started work on the relevant program, mainly contributing to vocational training. However, so far there is no program for transferring from school to employment. Many young people remain unemployed after graduating, since there is no suitable work where they live, or access to work is complicated for small number of social services supporting it. This shows that also the accessibility of social services and their quality have to be better guaranteed by state as well as local governments, whatever the region. It is not possible to implement the Work Capacity Reform is social services do not support the goal of employment, and the contradiction between the state and local governments remains. Some of the necessary services are provided by the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund, various packages of rehabilitation services are being drawn up and prepared.
Another big set of problems has to do with employers. Even though they see persons with reduced capacity for work as resources they are also modest in hiring them. One of the reasons for this is fear – they are unfamiliar with the problems and afraid they cannot handle them. The Unemployment Insurance Fund has compiled several different materials to alleviate this fear, also organising training and offering counselling. Yet the employers oppose the need to increase their costs, as additional resources are first of all meant for developing the enterprise, and not for social projects. Here it is possible to apply for partial compensation for costs from the Unemployment Insurance Fund, there are state imposed tax incentives, as well as other premiums. If the employers realise that including persons with damage to health and persons with disabilities in employment is beneficial for them in long term perspective, it is a necessary prerequisite for the Work Capacity Reform to be a success.
On 19 November 2014 Riigikogu passed the Work Ability Allowance Act, which was supposed to come into force on 1 July 2015 according to the initial plan. This act was based on the principles of the Work Capacity Reform and should cardinally change the status of persons with disabilities and persons with damage to health – bring them back onto labour market, turn them into active members of society from people needing help. However, this was not accompanied by a comprehensive package of acts of law influencing this field, even though also the Social Welfare Act was amended in order to partially bring it into accordance with the Work Ability Allowance Act (whereas some of the points were supposed to come into force at different times). The newest wording of the Social Welfare Act was recently adopted, on 18 February 2015, and came into force on 1 July 2015. A new wording is currently in the works, which will presumably come into force on 1 January 2016.
The Work Ability Allowance Act discussion was actively entered into by organisations of people with disabilities who draw attention to significant shortcomings – the act stated several demands, which are not possible to fulfil without supporting social services, there was also concern for worsening of coping for active people – from a certain wage level the work ability allowance will start to reduce, however, the costs of going to work do not reduce, but, conversely, increase. Several demonstrations were organised, a number of amendments were submitted, the President of the Republic was addressed. Some of the proposals were even considered in the final version of the act of law, but in general, the target group was not pleased with the act of law in this wording. The new composition of Riigikogu that was elected in 2015 reviewed the act of law again and postponed its implementation until 1 January of 2016; development of supporting services was also planned. At the moment there’s talk of the chance that the act of law comes partially into force on 1 January 2016 and in full on 1 July 2016.
In October of 2015 the draft act for amending the Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act and the Specialized Schools Act, which also worries people with disabilities, as some of the schools for students with special needs are in private property and there is fear that amendment to the act will increase the fee for a place, was submitted to the government.
On 5 May 2014 the Supreme Court made a judgment regarding payment of subsistence benefit for the guardian of a person with disability where the ward is a member of the family, the caregiver’s allowance and guardianship support are below the established subsistence level, however, with the social support of the ward, the common income is above the subsistence level. Here the court drew attention to contradiction of some of the points in the Family Law Act and the Social Welfare Act and that in this question the local government has no jurisdiction. The final conclusion is that the guardian of a person with disability can demand subsistence from the ward by judicial process, but its size will be determined by court. In essence, such judgment does not influence coping of persons with disabilities and their family members, as the sum does not depend on the order of adding up, but it gives the opportunity to review these provisions of law and bringing them into accordance, it also allows the guardian to apply for subsistence benefit if the court doesn’t order support for his or her benefit for some reason.
Statistics and surveys
There were no new statistical surveys or research directly regarding people with disabilities conducted in the period under observation, all prognoses and calculations related to Work Capacity Reform are based on earlier studies. However, Praxis, on the order of Ministry of Education and Research, has analysed the network of basic and upper secondary schools in Estonia. Even though it doesn’t specifically mention schools for students with special needs, the decisions based on the study, along with other concepts, may influence the access of students with special needs to education fitting their ability (place and type of school).
Noteworthy public discussions
The wider public discussion on topics regarding persons receiving pension for incapacity for work and persons with disabilities has continued in the past year. In relation to processing and adopting the Work Capacity Reform Act the representatives of the target group have started to become more involved and louder in the debate. The discussions have more substance, the approach to the topic is more based on human rights. Since the Work Capacity Reform deeply affects a large group of people (100,000 persons upon estimation) there were a lot of emotions, fierceness and debate in discussions. Nevertheless, it is positive that we are finding increasingly more common ground – we all are people, some just have greater special needs.
Similarly to the previous year, the main point of departure for development was the Work Capacity Reform. As it continued to be one of the top priorities for the government there was also a certain sense of pressure and rushing. After the act was passed and the Riigikogu elections had taken place, the parties did start to listen to one another more and approaching matters in a more complex way. Amendments to the rehabilitation system have been started, the order of distributing technical aids is being reviewed and small steps are taken towards complete implementation of the act. However, the comprehensive approach has not been reached yet, the educational and social policy will not catch up with the employment policy that fast.
- There has to be a comprehensive approach to initiating and completely implementing the Work Capacity Reform – guarantee equal opportunities to all persons with disabilities or damage to health, regardless of their place of residence. This requires equal accessibility of social services in all local governments.
- Establish a minimum checklist and quality requirements to social services provided by local governments and guarantee sufficient capability of all local governments to fulfil them.
- Improve access to education and quality of education for students with special needs on all levels of education, establish a support system for smoothly transferring from school to employment.
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