The U.S., Ecuador and the "Wheelchair Revolution"

PHOTO: Ecuadorean vicepresident Lenin Moreno casts his vote during a constitutional referendum in 2011. As vicepresident Moreno has promoted a law that gets companies to set aside four percent of jobs for workers with disabilities.Juan Cevallos/AFP/Getty Images
Ecuadorean vicepresident Lenin Moreno casts his vote during a constitutional referendum in 2011. Moreno has been paraplegic since 1998. As vicepresident he has promoted a law that gets companies to set aside four percent of jobs for workers with disabilities.

In an article published earlier this week, the Global Post claims that Ecuador is in the midst of a "wheelchair revolution," which has turned it into one of the most advanced countries for disabled people in Latin America. These changes are being led by Vice President, Lenin Moreno, who has been paraplegic for more than a decade, and could be the highest ranking public official with a major disability, anywhere in the world.

Ecuador is doing some things that are already done in rich countries, like setting up ramps for the disabled in public spaces, and providing monthly stipends for people with severe mental and physical disabilities. The South American nation is also investing in prosthetic factories, as it is cheaper to produce replacement arms and legs domestically than to import them from abroad.

But there´s one thing about this story that's distinctly different. Since 2010, Ecuador has implemented a bold labor law that gets big companies in the country to set aside 4 percent of job positions for disabled workers. Under this law, the Ecuadorean government can and does impose heavy fines on companies, of 25 people or more, that do not meet the 4 percent quota.

Ecuador´s Labor Ministry reported in 2012, that by implementing employee quotas and credit lines for disabled people who run businesses, it has been able to get jobs for 18,000 people with disabilities in the past five years. That's roughly a 5 percent increase in the employment rate for Ecuadoreans with disabilities.

In the U.S. the Labor Department recently proposed new regulations that were similar to the Ecuadorean quotas, though somewhat less ambitious. But these new regulations have been stalled for more than a year, as the Department of Labor considers complaints, and comments filed by numerous government contractors. The Labor Department proposal, which first surfaced in December of 2011, suggests that those government contractors who have 50 employees or more, set aside seven percent of jobs, for people with disabilities. The Labor Department said such actions were necessary because almost 80 percent of disabled Americans who are of working age, are currently out of the labor force.

Rather than enforcing strict quotas as Ecuador does, the Labor Department said that contractors should demonstrate that they were taking steps towards reaching the seven percent target, or risk losing government business. The proposal lays out several things companies can do in areas like recruitment, training and policy initiatives to show that they are on the right track.

According to The Wall Street Journal, contractors flooded the Labor Department with complaints when the new rules were proposed. Some companies feared that they would not find enough disabled people in their fields to meet the proposed targets. Others companies said that new regulations would increase paperwork, and contradict federal regulations that prevent them from asking prospective employees about disabilities.

A spokesman for the Labor Department told ABC/Univision that a final decision on the proposed regulations is anticipated for April. He added that he could not comment on what the proposal for disabled workers is going to look like, until it is released.

In Ecuador, there were also plenty of objections to the 4 percent quota, with pharmacy chains and banks reporting that they had to create new positions that were not of much use to these corporations, in order to fulfill quotas and avoid hefty fines.

Companies in the South American country also complained that quotas affected productivity. That said, some employers found no problems with the new law, and claimed that some workers with disabilities were actually more productive than those with no disabilities.

Mariela Alvarez, a human resources director for a major car battery manufacturer told Ecuadorean newspaper El Universo that employees with hearing disabilities were very efficient workers at her company. "They concentrate a lot at work, because they can´t entertain themselves with the noises around them," Alvarez said. "So they end up producing more than what we expect from them."