Job coaching for the disabled: an NGO perspective

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Author’s note: Although “the disabled” and “disabled people” have been used throughout the article for reasons of convenience and readability, “persons with disabilities” is now often used instead as it helps to acknowledge that disability is just one aspect of a person’s identity.


Employment is a critical challenge faced by the disabled and society as a whole. Despite the government’s efforts to promote inclusive employment, the official unemployment rate for disabled people remains disproportionately high compared to the general population. A survey conducted in January and February 2023 showed that the unemployment rate for the general population was 5.6 percent, while the rate for youth unemployment (individuals aged 16 to 24) stood at 18.1 percent. This disparity highlights the challenges faced by the disabled in finding employment opportunities in the open labor market.

China’s government has made significant efforts to increase the number of disabled in work and has established a comprehensive set of laws and regulations directly or indirectly addressing the protection of persons with disabilities’ rights and interests. The right to equal employment opportunities, in particular, are covered in the Chinese Constitution, the Labor Law, the Law on the Promotion of Employment, the Law on the Protection of Disabled Persons, the Regulation on Employment of Persons with Disabilities, as well as additional laws and regulations ensuring equal access to education, training, and economic assistance programs related to employment.

As a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), in 2008, China also made an internationally binding pledge to implement and enforce legislation that protects the equal right to employment and eradicates discrimination of any kind in the pursuit of work and career advancement.

However, the actual enforcement and practical implementation of these obligations vary in practice. The current quota system, which is the government’s primary policy tool for ensuring employment of persons with disabilities has not proven very effective in improving labor market participation among disabled people. While no detailed data on overall compliance rates with the quota scheme are publicly available, studies suggest that a large and growing share of companies prefer to pay into the Employment Security Fund for Persons with Disabilities – rather than hiring disabled people directly.

In addressing this issue, China Disabled Persons Federation (CDPF) and the other five ministries jointly released the “Overall Plan for Improving the System of Employment Security Funds for Persons with Disabilities to Better Promote the Employment of Persons with Disabilities” on Dec 27, 2019, and the State Council announced a comprehensive three-year action plan on March 25 last year to promote the employment of disabled people. The action plan sets ambitious targets to increase the employment of the disabled nationwide. It aims to create over one million new jobs (including opportunities for self-employment) in both rural and urban areas between 2022 and 2024.

Currently, businesses receive assistance from both public and private employment services to facilitate the employment of the disabled. The support provided by the CDPF and their provincial federations primarily revolves around sharing information, and providing basic training regarding registered individuals with disabilities. On the other hand, HR consultancies concentrate on providing commercial employment placement services, which often lack the necessary on-the-job and post-placement support. As a result, employees with disabilities face challenges in retaining their jobs, and mainstream employers hold negative perceptions about their abilities to work.

Since 2013, the concept of job coaching began to emerge in China to assist the disabled with accessing the labor market. In March 2020, the role of “job coach for persons with disabilities” was officially included in the list of occupations under the category of “career counsellor”. While comprehensive nationwide data on job coaching is not available, CDPF and their provincial federations have conducted training programs for a significant number of job coaches. These programs typically include primary-level training lasting for four days and advanced-level training lasting for two days.

However, there are some limitations to the existing approach. Training sessions are often limited in time and do not provide comprehensive content on employer engagement and support. While job coaches receive training, it does not guarantee that all trained job coaches are actively engaged in the market, and without proper monitoring and evaluation of their activities, it becomes challenging to assess their impact and effectiveness. In addition, existing job coaching services have mainly concentrated on assisting jobseekers with disabilities, and there has been limited emphasis on equipping employers with the necessary support to foster disability inclusion in the workplace. Furthermore, these services have primarily targeted individuals with intellectual disabilities and other severe disabilities, leaving people with less obvious disabilities with less attention and support.

Some disability-focused NGOs in China have made efforts to improve employment opportunities for the disabled. Insights gained from their initiatives highlight the practicality and efficiency of focusing on the capacity building of individual resource persons rather than transforming entire organizations into disability inclusion advisory service providers.

While NGOs often possess experience and expertise in supporting individuals with specific types of disabilities, they are limited in their ability to provide comprehensive support for individuals with all types of disabilities. By focusing on building the capacities of individuals, i.e. their skills and expertise in addressing the two key issues, a larger and diverse pool of talented women and men as job coaches can be cultivated, providing support to individuals with diverse disabilities and assisting employers.

This approach offers the opportunity to include individuals from companies themselves to foster a sense of ownership and commitment from the employer’s side. It also facilitates the development of in-house expertise in disability inclusion, empowering companies to take a proactive role in creating inclusive workplaces. Mobilizing and providing training for individual job coaches allows for the establishment of a scalable and adaptable model, empowering them to directly support disabled workers and offer advisory services to employers.

As the term “job coach” has traditionally been associated with helping people with intellectual disabilities, which may limit its perception and applicability to individuals with other types of disabilities, it is also proposed to rename the role of job coach to “inclusive employment facilitator”. Moreover, there is a growing recognition of the importance of job coaches — not only in assisting job seekers with disabilities, but also in providing support and guidance to employers to foster disability inclusion in the workplace.

Inclusive Employment Facilitators can also provide support to employers in identifying and implementing reasonable accommodations, such as assistive technology or modified work schedules, to enable employees with disabilities to perform their jobs effectively. They can also assist in creating a supportive and inclusive workplace culture that fosters diversity and inclusion.

To equip the Inclusive Employment Facilitator with the ability to provide such support, they should receive training on how to engage with employers, which kind of workplace accommodations are needed for each type of disability, as well as the tools and techniques used to support employees with disabilities in addressing their specific needs.

In summary, by accessing comprehensive assistance from a single dedicated resource person, i.e. the Inclusive Employment Facilitator, who develops a deeper understanding of different workplaces, individuals and employers can receive tailored support that addresses their specific needs more effectively, leading to more effective solutions and ultimately resulting in lower costs and higher impact.

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