A positive contribution
Judith van de Vecht is a good example of how this can be done. Last summer she was hired by HR advising as project coordinator and administrative assistant through the participation programme. Due to contracting meningitis, she has a hearing disability and has limited physical energy; she has been unable to work since 2014. But with a few adjustments, she can make a substantial contribution to her team at VU Amsterdam.
“HR is running a lot of different projects and there was little oversight of who was doing what and how much time it was taking,” Judith says. “I’m making an inventory of everything, and compiling a document that gives a clear overview of how things stand. This will let everyone know who is doing what so that our know-how can be more efficiently deployed.”
To Judith it’s much more obvious than to others how important this programme is - both for VU Amsterdam and for employees who are able to fill a productive position in this way. “It’s nice to have hobbies and they also give you satisfaction, but by going back to work I can work on personal development and make a positive contribution to the university. I just really enjoy being busy with work and meeting new people. It’s also really satisfying to know that I have real value for the organisation.”
The Participation Act and VU’s objectives
An important aim of VU Amsterdam is to be an inclusive employer. Under the Participation Act, VU Amsterdam has set the objective of increasing the number of colleagues with an occupational disability to 163 FTEs by 2024. In order to achieve this goal, each department has been assigned it’s own target. The Participation Service Point is providing support by entering into discussions with faculties and service departments about the possibilities, matching employees with a disability to suitable positions, investigating accessibility in the workplace and counselling employees and their supervisors.
Despite Covid-19, the number of participation jobs grew this year to about 53 FTEs. Nonetheless, VU Amsterdam is lagging behind in its mandate for this year. Renée believes one of the reasons for this is the misperceptions about people with an occupational disability. “Words like ‘disability’ and ‘participation jobs’ tend to make people think of simple tasks. There’s an emphasis on what someone with a disability can’t do, instead of what she or he can do. Occupational disability really says nothing about the qualities and experience that someone has to offer. Positions at all levels can be filled by someone with an occupational disability: from professor to communication advisor to service employee.”
Renée also believes that supervisors are sometimes afraid that creating a position for someone with a work disability will make a huge demand on their department. “You have to invest time in teaching people the job and supervision, and sometimes you have to adjust your expectations. But if you match someone to the key aspects of the position, they can be great assets to the team. We at the Participation Service Point are also here to offer support in every area.”
In order to make working at VU Amsterdam possible for people with an occupational disability, accessibility is essential. “Speaking from my own experience, VU Amsterdam is very accessible,” Judith says. “You can approach anyone at any time with questions or if adjustments are necessary. My supervisor is really accommodating when it comes to my working hours, so that these fit within my limitations.”
The Participation Service Point still sees room for improvements. Renée explains: “When it’s about physical accessibility, like people in a wheelchair or with visual impairments, a lot of personal arrangements are possible at VU Amsterdam. If a student or employee has any needs regarding access, the building is surveyed for ways of making it accessible for that person. VU Amsterdam steering group on participation jobs is busily working to make modifications to buildings easier to realise. In the workplace it depends on the disability and job whether modifications are possible, and if so which ones. Employees can themselves indicate what they need so that a solution can then be found.”
Two focus points for the Participation Service Point are recruiting and retention. In other words, creating as many positions as possible for people with an occupational disability and ensuring that they remain employed by VU Amsterdam for longer periods with the right guidance.
“The intention is that all departments will strive to meet their goals, so that we will really grow to 163 FTEs,” Renee says. “But the real ambition is that accepting such colleagues becomes normalised for all of us and that VU Amsterdam becomes really inclusive. If we can shift the emphasis to what someone with a disability can do, then maybe in the future we won’t need a quota any more.”