Strengthening the strengths

Nils Jent (l.) and Joachim Schoss taking part in a lively discussion. (Photo: Eberle-Schmid)
Nils Jent (l.) and Joachim Schoss taking part in a lively discussion. (Photo: Eberle-Schmid)

What can be done in order to help and promote the integration of people with disabilities in the primary labor market? Prof. Dr. Nils Jent, head of the Center for Disability and Integration at the University of St-Gallen (Switzerland), and Joachim Schoss, founder and chairman of the foundation’s council at Foundation MyHandicap, share their thoughts and reflections on this question.

Mr. Jent, in spite of multiple disabilities, you completed your college degree, carried on studying and obtained your PhD. Today, you are head of two research departments. Do you consider yourself an exception?

Jent: In a way, yes. Not everyone has such a good combination of background conditions, chance and personal characteristics, which enable one to always be able to find one’s way, to stay positive and to carry on. Right after my accident, I could not do anything. I was totally locked in my body. My body was stiff and did not react at all to sensations. For this reason, I was very much depending on my parents’ help, who took charge of everything, especially at the beginning.

For example, my mother recorded all of what I had to learn for school on thousands of cassettes and helped me complete my college degree. My parents were incredibly supportive. Without them, nothing would have been possible. If I sit here today, it is mostly the result of a combination of factors, an unconditional will to work and a strong collaboration in a variety of situations. The credits are not entirely mine.

Nevertheless, your development was not always easy. A career adviser suggested that you should become a broom-maker…

Jent: That’s right. I found it shocking that a professional career adviser should focus solely on my almost useless hands instead of focusing on my good-functioning mind. That’s why it was important for me to go my own way and not let myself be influenced by what other people thought I should do.

First my parents, and later my mentor and PhD supervisor, Prof. Dr. Martin Hilb, as well as the Foundation MyHandicap, with the creation of the university Research Center for Disability and Integration: all believed and invested in my strengths and capacities. My disabilities require from all people, including me, great flexibility, as well as the will to find innovative paths and creative solutions. The type of disabilities I am confronted to also requires from me that I re-discover my abilities on a daily basis. No one can do this for me.

Mr. Schoss, you lost an arm and a leg through a terrible motorbike accident in 2002. Two years later, you founded the Foundation MyHandicap and the internet portal myhandicap. What were your reasons for doing so?

Schoss: While I was at the hospital, I started to search on Internet for subjects such as disabilities, amputation, prosthetics, and I found absolutely nothing. Early 2003, there was not a single portal that addressed such issues. This seemed unthinkable to me, considering that there are internet portals for almost all spheres of life for people without disabilities. Why should there be no portal for this single target group, for which Internet is a true blessing? This was for me the trigger for wanting to become active.

With your foundation, you also enabled, among others, the creation of the CDI (Center for Disability and Integration) at the University of St-Gallen (Switzerland) in 2009. How did this happen?

Schoss: We started in 2004 with the work relating to the Foundation and soon realised that there are many theories and assumptions about people with disabilities, but hardly any solid data collection. Ten years ago, at least as far as German-speaking countries are concerned, almost no research was being done in the field of economy, in the way the CDI is now doing it. We have created the research center in order to study these questions in greater depth: How does inclusion work best, economically and socially? And how can we influence policy makers to develop optimal disability policies as well as to prevent contra-productive processes?

How does the cooperation between the Foundation and the CDI precisely look like?

Schoss: The research center and the Foundation MyHandicap are two distinct entities. Neither the foundation nor I have any influence on the research center. The research projects must comply with the quality criteria of the University of St-Gallen. Within the Advisory Board of the CDI, the Foundation only has two seats out of eight. Therefore, there is no possibility to dictate which fields of research should be pursued. There is a friendly cooperation, for example through the publication of articles from the CDI on the myhandicap’s website, but no authority to issue instructions, from one side to another.

Joachim Schoss explains why it is worthwhile to include people with disabilities. (Photo: Eberle-Schmid)
Joachim Schoss explains why it is worthwhile to include people with disabilities. (Photo: Eberle-Schmid)


For the inauguration of the CDI in November 2009, Bill Clinton came to St-Gallen. How did you encounter him?

Schoss: Bill Clinton is a very special person. You have the feeling, just before he enters a room, that everything is becoming quiet. As former US president, now running his own non-profit foundation, he is an extremely engaged person. He is very present with the people he meets, even for a short five-minute encounter.

Jent: I can absolutely confirm that. I was able to speak with Bill Clinton for a few minutes only, but I noticed right away his incredible sense of presence and his unmeasurable empathy. There was not a single moment, during our short meeting, in which I felt that he did not consider me at the same height.

Schoss: During his inauguration speech, Bill Clinton also said something with universal value: “Do we not all have some disabilities, at some level or other?”. This resonates, I believe, with what we are doing and why we are doing it. Moreover, in the course of life, more than 50% of the people experience some degree of disabilities. Therefore, it is worthwhile to consider our existence from that perspective: each one of us is disabled in some way or other.

All the same, the unemployment rate in Germany of people with “official” disabilities is about twice as high as for people without disabilities. What does the CDI do in order to dissuade employers of their reservations?

Jent: In the applied research, we practice awareness-raising with the employers themselves. We visit enterprises, we dismantle reservations and fears of contact, we demonstrate examples of inclusion out of our own experience and how professional know-how can be used for the creation and financing of disability-compatible job positions.

We have developed five modules, based on which enterprises can build up structures needed at all levels. For us, the most important is the financial, long-term aspect. In regard to the inclusion of employers with disabilities, the focus is usually mostly on the deficits. Employers often first examine what does not work and what could cause problems. We try to achieve a recognition of all talents and abilities which a person with disabilities has.

Can people with disabilities also be exceptional employees?

Schoss: People with disabilities are able to compensate. A person who does not see can usually hear – as long as there is no hearing impairment – much better and more actively than most other people. During a job interview, Nils Jent can hear quite different things than we do, simply because our ear is not as well trained. With my left hand, I can probably do more things than most people, just because I had to learn it. In the computer field, people with Asperger-Syndrome achieve exceptional performances. There is a number of domains in which people with disabilities achieve better results than people without disabilities. Also, it often happens that a person with disabilities is more loyal to his employer. There is a great number of reasons why people with disabilities should be included in work processes.

However, this still happens too rarely. Which role do prejudice and fear of contact play?

Schoss: A big role. What I observe is that an employer first needs to make the experience of working with people with disabilities. He should come to realisation that even though a person in a wheelchair cannot walk, she can nevertheless be a performant employee. Once employers have lost their fear of contact, they usually realise that people with disabilities can be very performant and that they can consider implementing two or three adaptation to the workplace.

What impact does diversity have on the work atmosphere?

Jent: Diversity Management is a management system that brings balance in regard to differences on the personnel level, i.e. between man and woman, between young and old, between different nations, or between employees with or without disabilities, in such a way that they can all work together. It also sets the basis for preventing that the workplace feels under pressure because more “different” employees join the team. Diversity Management exerts a positive, balancing influence on the workplace, as well as opens new possibilities for other personnel groups.

Schoss: In order to illustrate the impact of Diversity Management, I would like to tell an anecdote: Shortly after I was released from the hospital, the CEO of a large, listed enterprise visited me at my home, dressed very smartly. Now, it is very difficult to change a baby’s diaper with only one hand. My son had filled his diaper to the brim and my wife was not at home. So my guest took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and changed my son.

This was one of the best moments that I experienced with him. It wouldn’t have happened if I had two hands. I could tell many more similar stories. When people with disabilities join a team, new possibilities for encounters take place. I experience much consideration for people, and many positive reactions. Everything becomes more humane. 

Nils Jent is director at the Center for Disability and Integration at the University of St-Gallen. (Photo: Eberle-Schmid)
Nils Jent is director at the Center for Disability and Integration at the University of St-Gallen. (Photo: Eberle-Schmid)

What happens if some people experience jealousy or annoyance towards colleagues with disabilities which they feel benefit from special treatment?

Jent: This depends a lot on the corporate culture. The corporate culture is a very determinant aspect in the way differences and abilities are perceived. The inclusion of employees is only possible in enterprises that are diversity-compatible. Also, an open and transparent communication between both sides is very helpful. In places where there is little understanding for diversity, it must be developed.

For which reason does it make sense, economically, to have heterogeneous teams of employees?

Jent: Heterogeneous teams are not always successful. What is determinant is the complexity of the task. For complex tasks, it does make sense to put together heterogeneous teams. However, for simple tasks, which can nevertheless be demanding, such as a mathematical problem, teams that are more homogeneous can achieve better results. The world we live in, however, is becoming increasingly complex, and so does the number of complex tasks. Therefore, the need to understand how to build heterogeneous teams and make the best out of diversity is also becoming increasingly important.

Do the results which you gain from your research on personal management also benefit the people without disabilities?

Schoss: The most important is the focus on abilities, competences and strengths. Focusing on disabilities or on weaknesses makes people sick, even for people without disabilities. Focusing on abilities, on what people can do, on strengthening the strengths, this is something we can learn from people with disabilities, but which we can apply to all employees as well.

What do you think about a legal disability hiring quota, such as in Germany?

Jent: A quota is an administrative number, distinct from the individual personality. As an employer, I am interested about maintaining this number, as opposed to being interested about the individual, his personality, his abilities and his willingness to work. For this reason, I consider introducing a quota as being as questionable as a social-romantic commitment.

On the other hand, a system based on reward, acknowledging the quality of diversity concepts, would achieve in my opinion a much larger impact. It would probably cause an impetus in the development of diversity management concepts, from which everyone would benefit, including people with disabilities.

Schoss: Of course, every quota has two sides to it. One needs to say that the introduction of a quota has already achieved much for the integration of people with disabilities. We do observe that many employers hire one person more than required by the quota, in order to avoid compensation payments. But of course, it would be absolutely preferable that these were not mandatory, but rather, that each employee would be hired on the basis of his or her abilities.


Text: Aktion Mensch
Photos: Eberle-Schmid
Translation: MyH – 08/2014