Beatriz Pellizzari's professional job training and placement program challenges society's long-held beliefs about the ability, and employability, of the disabled.
La idea nueva
In a deliberate move away from conventional ways of serving the disabled, Beatriz is creating a structure which relies upon market principles and professional standards to incorporate physically and sensory disabled workers into the labor force, without resorting to quotas or preferential treatment. She recognizes that finding a job is not simply a matter of charity, but rather the result of making a match between the worker's skills and the employer's needs. In her job placement and training system, individuals with physical limitations identify and build their own skills, and then compete in the labor market as equals with non-disabled workers.
Between 8 and 10 percent of all Argentines suffer from some sort of disability, and this has a direct impact on 40 percent of the population -- their families. Discrimination against people with disabilities remains rampant in Argentina, a country whose high rates of plastic surgery and eating disorders are a testament to its obsession with perfection and its disdain for those who are somehow different. Moreover, rarely is there any differentiation between physical and mental handicaps. Non-disabled people tend to lump the disabled into a single category, failing to understand that a physical disability is not necessarily accompanied by a compromise of one's mental faculties.
These attitudes and misconceptions invariably spill into the workplace, where incorporation of disabled workers is viewed as an act of charity at best. Mentally astute but physically limited workers are faced with a paucity of opportunities disproportionate to what is available in the job market as a whole. Employers worry that the workplace is fraught with danger for the disabled worker and could in some way aggravate his or her condition. They worry that their clients will feel uncomfortable when dealing with disabled employees, and that communication problems will arise between the disabled workers, their managers, and the rest of the personnel.
In today's Argentine labor market, competition for jobs is fierce, and workers must be able to demonstrate a high level of skill in order to attain even the most entry-level positions. In order to leverage their position in the market, many workers rely upon training courses, particularly in high demand areas such as information technology. Though such courses are widely available, disabled workers who try to sign up are routinely turned down, for no other reason than the prejudices and ignorance which otherwise limits their entry into the workforce.
Disabled workers are faced with architectural and transportation barriers, which also obstruct their participation in the labor force. While such conditions have improved markedly in developed nations, Argentina–like many other countries in Latin America and around the world–has yet to undertake a concerted effort to improve public access for the disabled. Sidewalk ramps are scarce, and very rarely do buildings and public transportation have the equipment needed to accommodate wheelchair access. Though in the long term it is important to break down these barriers, in the meantime there is a significant percentage of the disabled population that is capable of reaching and holding jobs, if they are given the chance.
Beatriz began her efforts to create a new, non-paternalistic model of integrating disabled workers into the workforce by revamping the mission of Foundation Par, an organization created in 1988 to serve the needs of disabled workers. Upon arriving at Par in 1993, she immediately saw that the organization was on the decline and needed to shift from a charity-driven view of worker placement to a more proactive approach, one which would empower disabled workers to recognize, build, and promote their own skills, and which would push from a variety of angles to break down the stereotypes governing society's perception of disability.
Thanks to Beatriz's vision and leadership, Par now boasts an array of programs that facilitate the physically disabled worker's insertion into the labor force. Because one of Par's central premises is that physically disabled workers can and must compete as equals in the job market, its programs are not for everyone. Applicants must demonstrate, during the course of a comprehensive selection process, both the willingness to compete as equals and a base of skills needed to do so. Through role-playing activities in which they must pretend to be both worker and employer, the applicants explore how and why certain stereotypes come into play in the workplace. They begin to see that their own low levels of self-esteem and lack of recognition of their abilities can be as much of a barrier to employment as the employer's ignorance about what a physical disability does and does not entail. As part of the process of learning to promote themselves as able, qualified workers, the Par applicants are sent out into the community to serve as advocates of the Foundation's work. They must identify local businesses that might be potential contacts for Par, then make a pitch to those businesses' managers or human resource directors as to why they should consider becoming a part of Par's employer database.
Once accepted into the Par program, disabled workers are categorized according to their skills, such as computing, English, nursing, or telemarketing. When the Foundation is notified of job openings requiring those skills, the matching process begins. Potential candidates from within the Par pool are identified and interviewed by Foundation staff, and those deemed appropriate for applying are sent off to compete for the position like any other worker. As a result of this process, over one hundred workers per year are placed in jobs that they might not otherwise have had the self-confidence, or simply the access to information, needed to secure employment.
Notification of job openings is the product of the aggressive corporate outreach strategy that Beatriz has spearheaded and of the Foundation's large and constantly growing employer database. Each year, Par sends letters of presentation to some nine hundred companies, three hundred of whose human resources managers sit down with Par staff to discuss the possibility of incorporating disabled workers into the workplace. Regardless of whether or not these companies end up forwarding job openings to Par, Beatriz views these encounters as an important way of beginning to break down the ideological barriers that traditionally limit the hiring of disabled workers. She also has developed and leads training courses for human resources personnel and for university students studying human resources to educate them about the issue of disabilities. She has assembled a consortium of over twenty companies who consistently hire Par workers and help to fund the Foundation's activities.
To enhance disabled workers' ability to compete in the market, and in light of their difficulty in being admitted to mainstream training courses, in 1996 Beatriz launched a series of free courses in the areas of telemarketing and client relations, information technology, "New Alternatives in Job Searching," generating self-employment, and English. In 1998, over two hundred students participated in the program, and in 1999 that number is expected to exceed three hundred fifty. Moreover, thanks to a new partnership with Microsoft, Par workers will now be able to receive free training in network administration.
Beatriz believes that eventually the job placement model which Par has developed can be outsourced to mainstream employment agencies, who will have recognized that disabled workers are yet another segment of the population with tangible skills to offer and jobs to be attained. In the meantime, she plans to turn over her daily responsibilities at Par in order to concentrate on replicating her job placement strategies in other institutions working with disabilities in major Argentine cities, starting with Rosario and Córdoba.
Once she spreads the job placement program beyond Par, Beatriz plans to shift her attention to removing the remaining barriers which hinder the full integration of the disabled into the workers through a comprehensive marketing and lobbying campaign to improve the working conditions faced by disabled workers. Through a diagnosis of existing labor laws regarding disabled workers and through subsequent lobbying efforts to amend these laws in favor of more equitable conditions, Beatriz hopes to install a greater awareness and recognition of the capacities and rights of the physically disabled. Moreover, she plans to lobby for the increased inclusion of disabled workers in traditional job training programs and to reduce the architectural and transportation barriers, which often prohibit disabled workers from engaging in jobs for which they are qualified. Throughout this process, she will push ahead with the existing mass marketing campaign, led in partnership with McCann Erikson, to educate the public about the rights, skills, and lives of the disabled.
At the age of eighteen, Beatriz suffered an auto accident that would change her life. Her boyfriend was killed instantly, and Beatriz severely wounded. After spending six months bedridden in the hospital, she began to walk on crutches and thus embarked upon a long process of physical rehabilitation. As Beatriz recalls, she went from being an active, independent young woman to someone totally dependent on the care and assistance of others.
Work has always been a defining feature of Beatriz's life, having secured her first job at age fourteen in order to help support the family, and she was eager to return to work following her accident. Her movements supported by canes and braces, she remembers getting strange, pitying glances back in the office, and thinking to herself, "I broke my legs but not my brain!"
Despite the tacit discrimination she faced, Beatriz continued to comb the job market for new opportunities, and to embrace each position with characteristic persistence and zeal. Dim economic prospects led her from her native Uruguay to Buenos Aires in the early 1980s, where she worked for several years selling everything from books to agrochemicals to hospital equipment, routinely winning awards for her stellar salesmanship.
She first became involved with non-profit organizations in 1991 through her work with the Chamber Orchestra of Bariloche, and in 1993 took a course on Non-Profit Management at the University of Belgrano. It was through this course that she met Jacqueline de las Carreras, the founder of Foundation Par. Beatriz then embarked upon a course which combined her lifelong passion for work and the labor market with her personal experience dealing with a physical disability. Her pioneering role in the transformation of Par is only one step in what promises to be a long trajectory of improving the plight of disabled workers in Argentina and beyond.