Quality Apprenticeships and people with disabilities

Quality Apprenticeship programmes have a great potential for benefiting persons with disabilities (PwD), because of their practical approach and effective learning transfer. This type of programme gives PwD a chance to prove their abilities to employers, and provides employers with the possibility of gauging their potential so that they can bring them into their enterprises (ILO, forthcoming). It is beneficial for apprentices and employers alike. Apprenticeship programmes that are inclusive of persons with disabilities can be an important bridge between this disadvantaged social group and productive employment.

Persons with disabilities, especially young persons with disabilities, face many barriers to entering work – prejudice, lack of work experience, skills mismatch, isolation from society, low schooling levels, inadequate learning methodologies, exploitation and transportation. Table 15 demonstrates how Quality Apprenticeships can contribute to solutions. 

Table 2: How apprenticeships inclusive of disabled people bridge the gap between skills and employment

Challenges faced by persons with disabilities in skills development and employment How quality and inclusive apprenticeships can contribute to solutions
  • Prejudice: Employers assume that disabled persons have a low productivity and need costly adaptations.
  • Apprenticeships are opportunities for disabled people to demonstrate their work potential and the contributions they can make to a company.
  • Lack of work experience is a key obstacle for young people in finding employment, especially for people with disabilities.
  • Apprenticeship is a way out of the “inexperience-gap”. Through company-based training, apprentices accumulate valuable work experience.
  • Skills mismatch: Training programmes are not always up-to-date on technological developments and responding to industry needs.
  • During the in-company training, apprentices are trained in the immediate skills needed in enterprises and the technology and equipment used.
  • Isolation from society: In segregated training programmes, persons with a disability do not practise the social skills needed for employment. 
  • During an apprenticeship, social skills are practised on a daily basis, like workplace relations, customer care, communication and problem solving.
  • Low schooling levels: Particularly in developing countries, people with disabilities have reduced access and spend fewer years in education.
  • Apprenticeship can motivate compensatory schooling: foundation skills (maths, literacy, etc.) are acquired more easily if used at the workplace.
  • Inadequate learning methodologies: Classroom-based skills development can often not be adjusted adequately to individual learning needs.
  • Workplace-based learning is “embedded” and supervised on a one-on-one basis – it is thus easier to adapt to individual needs and learning pace.
  • Exploitation: In segregated schools and workshops, work practices are often exempted from national labour laws (salaries, benefits, etc.)
  • Quality apprenticeships respect the national labour and youth code, including social benefits, remuneration and union affiliation.
  • Transportation: When training institutions are located far away, disabled people, particularly in rural areas, are faced with transport challenges. 
  • Apprenticeships can take place in local enterprises. Employers often cover transport, or apprentices can use their remuneration to pay for transport.

Source: ILO, 2017 (forthcoming).

Many employers are reluctant to hire persons with a disability because they lack any understanding about their abilities, and they fear their responsibilities for providing reasonable accommodations. Yet, employers stand to benefit by employing them due to reduced recruitment and training costs, as they are productive, capable workers who tend to stay with their employers longer. Also, in many cases, employers can receive tax, wage subsidy, and other benefits for hiring a person with a disability (Disabled World, 2015).

Statistics are difficult to obtain for Quality Apprenticeships and disability programmes because surveys do not usually record personal features such as disability. As a general rule, the proportion of persons with disabilities is low in apprenticeships. In Germany in 2015, there were 8,851 new apprenticeship contracts for persons with a disability (Federal Ministry for Education and Research, 2016, p.75). In England, as may be seen from table 16, there were 50,000 apprenticeship starts for people with a learner difficulty/disability in 2015/16, i.e., 9.9 per cent of the overall figure - but this is still half of the total proportion of people with disabilities (19.5 per cent).

Table 3: Apprenticeship starts for people with a learner difficulty/disability – England

Source: House of Commons Library, 2016, p. 12.

Steps to improve the inclusiveness of apprenticeships for persons with a disability

Implementing inclusive apprenticeships requires local practical and institutional arrangements, as well as policy measures at the highest level. The impact is more likely to be achieved through coordinated action across all levels. At the practical level, overall coordination through a specific local institution will be highly conducive to a smooth inclusion process (ILO, 2017, forthcoming).

Inclusive apprenticeships require an enabling environment, policies and laws that put the principles contained in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into practice, and set the basis for mainstreaming disability in the provision of TVET. Effective and pertinent policies can only result from the participation of governments, the social partners, and representatives from disabled persons’ organizations and TVET institutions in a combined process.


Governments play an essential role in creating a supportive legislative and social policy framework, and disability equality should be mainstreamed as a cross-cutting issue among all Ministries and governmental institutions. In terms of apprenticeships, government agencies have a role to play in coordinating, creating an enabling policy environment, providing services and support, and also funding:

  • Coordinating – among the social partners, with the TVET institutions, individual employers, disabled persons organizations and other stakeholders. As well as promoting practical linkages among these institutions, governments can also promote a shared understanding of how to work on disability issues, and monitor how successful they are.
  • Enabling inclusive policy – including disability issues in vocational education and training, ensuring that frameworks for quality apprenticeships have conditions for inclusion of persons with disabilities.
  • Providing services and support – TVET institutions and employers need to make adaptations to carry through these changes, and government agencies and policies can provide guidelines, regulations, incentives, and technical support.

Box 2: Supporting Australian Apprentices with disability

A range of assistance is available to support Australian Apprentices with disability, including Disabled Australian Apprentice Wage Support, which is paid to employers, and assistance for tutorial, interpreter and mentor services for apprentices. Disabled Australian Apprentice Wage Support (DAAWS) is an Australian Government incentive payable to an employer who employs an Australian Apprentice - who satisfies the disability eligibility criteria in an Australian Apprenticeship.

Source: Disabled World, 2015b.

TVET institutions

TVET institutions should be incorporating persons with disabilities throughout all vocational education and training, and in a way that is integrated with other apprentices. The process of developing an inclusive skills development system can be a lengthy one, as it involves reform through policies, budgets, infrastructure, a change in mindsets, as well as the training delivery itself. Alongside this process, there are practical measures to be taken in regards to mainstreaming, as follows:

  • Engaging in outreach activities – to persons with disabilities to encourage and facilitate entry into workplace learning.
  • Making physical adaptations – adjusting classroom and workplace training to make sure that persons with disabilities can participate productively.
  • Engaging employers – TVET institutions, especially those with pre-existing relationships with employers, can play an important role in encouraging and demonstrating employers to take on trainees with disabilities.
  • Establishing partnerships – together with disability organizations and other partners, TVET institutions can acquire the expertise and resources needed to make these changes.

Box 3: SENAI Programme for Inclusive Actions - Brazil

In Brazil, there is specific unit within the Brazilian Service for Industrial Training (SENAI) - the Programme for Inclusive Actions (PSAI). This unit supports the SENAI training centres in their inclusion efforts. There are also focal points on disability in each of SENAI’s regional departments, which assist with the implementation of inclusive apprenticeship. They are regularly trained by the PSAI and have formed a mutual support network. Furthermore, teachers and trainers receive training on disability inclusion. SENAI also includes disabled persons among their teachers and instructors – many of whom have previously been trained by SENAI.

Apprentices with all types of disabilities are accepted, and in principle, all occupations are open for training. Each candidate is considered depending on his/her individual abilities and limitations. If necessary, a PSAI member assesses the possibilities and feasibility of mastering a given occupation, together with the candidate in question. On the basis of the individual assessment, accommodations are made at the training centre and the company.

National legislation foresees that the curricula, teaching materials, training duration and exams can be easily adjusted, and that sign-language interpreters can be hired. Great efforts have been made to adapt existing training centres (and to build new ones) that are fully accessible. Disabled graduates receive the same, nationally recognized, certificates as non-disabled trainees. In the event that a graduate has limitations carrying out a specific task, this is noted on the certificate.

Approaching inclusion with a systemic view has been crucial to the success of this programme. The facilities and equipment, curricula, examination methods and people’s attitudes – all were addressed simultaneously. Capacity building was organized at all levels - with managers and supervisors, teachers, trainers and even secretaries and canteen staff. The network of focal points has also proven to be highly beneficial. Furthermore, clear objectives and indicators, as well as their constant monitoring, were key elements and helped to disseminate the achieved results widely.

Further information can be found under the SENAI industry website at: http://www.portaldaindustria.com.br/senai/en

Employers and employers’ associations

Employers and employers’ organizations have the opportunity to take the lead in the area of the inclusion of persons with disabilities into apprenticeships. Other stakeholders will need the assurance that employers are willing to engage persons with disabilities in workplace learning. This may be achieved in the following way:

  • Sharing experience – disseminating best practices and the possibilities relating to the hiring of persons with disabilities;  in many countries, networks of enterprises and disabled persons’ organizations are playing this role.
  • Taking on apprentices with disabilities – initiating the process in an adaptive way to enable employers and apprentices to learn from each other and to develop more sustained inclusion.
  • Making disability-inclusive workplaces – making a strong commitment to disability inclusion, by developing a disability management strategy and taking other measures to improve accessibility and inclusion in the workplace.

Box 4: Employers’ toolkit for inclusive apprenticeship

In the United Kingdom, there is a special toolkit designed for employers that want to develop a more inclusive and accessible apprenticeship offer. It provides practical information, sources of support and inspirational case studies of employers who have benefited from hiring and supporting apprentices from a diverse background, including persons with a disability.

Source: Learning and Work Institute, 2017

Support institutions

Institutions specialized in workplace inclusion, such as the public employment services, career guidance services and disabled persons’ organizations, can play a crucial role in providing coordination and assistance in the following way:

  • Providing advice for young persons with disabilities – offering career guidance and job-coaching, as well as supporting the transition to the labour market.
  • Coordinating with enterprises – identifying enterprises that are willing - or have a potential to train - disabled apprentices; helping disabled young people to find a training company and to complete the recruitment process; and, providing advice on accessibility.
  • Guiding TVET colleges – adapting curricula, training methods and assessments, and providing advice on accessibility
  • Acting as a help desk – mediating, in the case of grievances, including with respect to the prevention of discrimination, exploitation and harassment.
  • Conducting evaluations and tracer studies.

In South Africa, disabled learners receive intensive mentoring, coaching and support during their training. Proper planning is required for the success of this process. Companies need to ensure adequate support structures, such as in-company mentors and job coaches, who can help learners to master technical and practical skills.

Trade unions

Trade unions can advocate for disability inclusion among their members and develop a union-wide strategy for the inclusion of disabled workers in skills development. They can actively represent and protect the labour rights of apprentices with disabilities at the policy and sectoral level, within company work councils (where appropriate) and health and safety committees. They are in a unique position to promote positive, inclusive and respectful attitudes among co-workers, inform disabled apprentices about their rights, and to guide and support them in the case of grievances.