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Thousands of trained workers with intellectual disabilities struggle to find work

There are 30,000 working-age people with intellectual disabilities in Finland, but fewer than 1,200 of them have jobs.

Students of Spesia vocational college learn on the job at a gift shop they run. Image: Jarkko Riikonen / Yle

Only 1,200 of Finland's 30,000 working age residents with intellectual disabilities are in the country's workforce.

The latest estimate released by the Finnish Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (FAIDD) revealed that trained students from special needs institutions struggle to find work once they graduate.

According to the report, there are around 6,000 educated and motivated people with intellectual disabilities who — given the right support — could immediately take on jobs as kitchen workers or cleaning staff in restaurants and cafes — sectors facing acute labour shortages.

However, prejudices against those with developmental abilities and an overly cautious attitude from disability management services as well as family members can end up being detrimental to their employability, FAIDD employment expert Simo Klem said.

"The approach has been care-oriented rather than forward-looking. But they are not mutually exclusive — care and support can be provided at a workplace," Klem said.

He added that the attitudes people have towards those with special needs play a major role. The attitude of a municipality can also play a decisive role in their future, Klem said.

"If the person guiding individuals with special needs does not believe in their potential and employability, then they most likely won’t end up in a workplace either," he said.

No jobs despite training

Mitja Hirvonen, 17, from Jämsä began his three-year undergraduate course in business studies in the Jyväskylä branch of Spesia — a vocational education college for students with special needs.

"This is a really good sector for future employment," said Hirvonen, adding that he dreams of working in a grocery store after having briefly worked at one before.

"It was really nice and relaxed. I filled shelves there," he explained.

Hirvonen's class includes a dozen other students, a special needs teacher and a tutor. Students include those who face challenges in social situations and those with learning or developmental disabilities.

Students can train in some 20 different professions at Spesia, but struggle to find paid work after graduating. In Finland young people with special needs are rarely employed directly and often end up in subsidised or community-funded work.

"The challenge lies in the open labour market. We try to raise awareness of the students' skills through, for instance, stores run by them. We hope they are able to find jobs when we emphasise their strengths," the school's director of education, Jaana Myyryläinen,said.

Story continues after photo.

Kaisa Pölkki is doing her business studies in Spesia, a vocational college for those with special needs . Jarkko Riikonen / Yle Image: Jarkko Riikonen / Yle

"We have our own gift shop here in the mall where you can learn while meeting and serving customers," said Kaisa Pölkki, an 18-year-old business studies student at Spesia.

Personalised support needed

A few municipalities in Finland have been waking up to the employment potential of educated young people with special needs.

Over the last five years, the city of Jyväskylä has focused on career coaching in disability services to combat the challenges faced by the graduates when it comes to finding employment.

"The supervisor actively looks for a suitable job for the student and together with the employer, trains the candidate specifically for the job. The supervisor also offers support at the workplace for as long as the candidate needs it," said Päivi Junnilainen, the service manager for disability Services at the City of Jyväskylä.

According to FAIDD, municipalities should focus on personalised job training, which is the key to helping those with special needs gain employment.

In addition to cleaning and kitchen work, candidates can find work in areas of work like property maintenance, office support tasks, packing and shelving.

"Typically, the work has been of an auxiliary or supplementary nature, but if the right kind of support is provided, there can be a surprising number of opportunities," Klem noted.