Culture and research

DISABILITY MANAGER - Which skills or competences?

17 Jun 2021

Haydèe Longo

The term ‘competence’ etymologically indicates a duty, a responsibility. What are the responsibilities of those who are charged with dealing with disability? It is regrettable that this is still vague, perhaps due to a mentality that still struggles to see ‘disability’ as a field worthy of specific skills or, even, of professional figures specifically dedicated to it. Certainly, it cannot be denied that, especially in the workplace, the combination of responsibility and disability has always been problematic, but in recent years something has slowly been changing. Recent reforms relevant to the workplace have also affected opportunities, and in some cases the need, for professional figures dedicated to managing disabilities, with a particular focus on labour inclusion. 

This is how the figure of the 'disability manager' was born in Italy, a professional who is responsible for the inclusion and management of individuals with a disability in companies or public administrations. The position is compulsory for the latter when companies have over 200 employees, as provided for by the Madia Law, but private entities are also encouraged by Legislative Decree no. 151 of 2015 (part of the so-called ‘Jobs Act’) to have disability managers. Like similar figures, such as the ‘guarantors of disability’ or the ‘promoters of Law 68’, the need for disability managers, in a world where the need to identify professionals who have expertise in disability, has grown exponentially, thanks also to the many benefits (including economic) that having one can bring.  Few resources have been dedicated to outlining the professional background, skills and training that disability managers need to have, starting with the definition of what a disability manager is, in terms of profession or competences. To date this remains unclear and subject to various interpretations by experts in the field. And if this remains unclear, it is even less clear what the responsibilities of a disability manager should be. This was left open by the national rules that introduced the professional role, but also by the (currently small number of) regional rules that have provided for its adoption. Among these, the Lombardy Region stands out as the only one to have included 'disability manager' in its professional framework, listing a series of skills, knowledge and abilities that the figure must possess to be qualified as such. 

And what are these skills and responsibilities?  Many – too many, I would say... and the main ones are missing. For example, knowing certain aspects of labour law is mentioned, which is certainly fundamental, but nothing is said about anti-discrimination law, the mastery of which is even more vital when it comes to disability.  Moreover, nothing is said about reasonable accommodations or all the issues that concern the many facets of accessibility (physical, cultural, digital, etc.): how can we expect a disability manager to be able, for example, to deal with changes that will be imposed in the coming years in order to adapt to the new European regulations on the accessibility of goods and services, without understanding the requirements and without knowing how failure to comply with these laws can expose an company to accusations of discrimination, with serious legal and brand-reputation implications?  And how can we expect this person to understand how to overcome the limitations that environments place on individuals with any disability, without having undergone training that addresses them in detail?  Of course, it is difficult to define the competences and responsibilities involved in a position that is so multidisciplinary and multifaceted. Managing disability necessarily means tackling it from many points of view, all of which are complex and indispensable: legal, psychological, sociological, architectural, to name but a few. At the same time, it is equally difficult to identify the spheres where it is necessary to manage disability: in the workplace, for employees; in the social sphere, for citizens; at school, for students; in sports, for athletes. And so on. 

It is therefore clear how the role of disability manager can be thought of not as a single profession, but as a job that will vary according to the different contexts in which it operates: one of the main differences will be between the public and the private sphere, but because being a disability manager in a municipality is different from being one in a hospital or a university, for example, there will be further differences according to the need for different skills. In Canada, for example, every institution is not so much obliged to hire a disability manager as to prepare a ‘disability management’ plan, which various professionals contribute to drafting (lawyers, architects, doctors, etc..) who can thus cover all the issues and implications involved.  And whether or not disability management can be considered a competence in itself... it certainly is, but how would it be managed in the absence of a person qualified to oversee the entire process? Having such a competence without foreseeing the need for, at the same time, the existence of a professional figure who is actually an expert in the field would bring with it the great risk of not succeeding in achieving the ‘mainstreaming’ necessary for the effective inclusion of disability in all the policies and procedures of an institution or a company. In short, leaving a very important revolution unfinished. 

I hope that we will soon understand the importance of filling the current legal vacuum and issue guidelines to clarify the competences of this very important figure at a national level.

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