ULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIA — Tenuun Naranbaatar settles into a local café and opens Facebook on her phone. Her first stop is a group for people with disabilities looking for work. She’s a member.
As Tenuun, 24, scrolls through the posts, she jots down a potential employer’s phone number. She makes the call.
“I am sure that I can work as a shop assistant,” she says after the call ends. “But they told me that they were looking for someone who had more than 50% ability to work.”
Since 1994, Mongolia has used a system to assign a percentage to people living with disabilities. That percentage takes into account a person’s disability and correlates it to their perceived ability to work.
But those percentages often leave people who can work without viable job prospects and create a culture biased against employing people with disabilities, advocates say.
Someone determined to have lost more than 70% of their ability to work is considered totally unable to work and widely considered unemployable, according to a joint decree from the minister of Health and minister of Labor and Social Protection. People estimated to have lost 50% to 69% of their ability to work are considered partially able to work.
Tenuun was deemed 69% disabled, thanks to her diagnosis of congenital intracranial artery stenosis, which she believes is too high. She describes having a slight limp and an inability to focus her eyes for long periods of time. Nothing else, she says, distinguishes her from others.
But those percentages, once assigned, are hard to change. They are determined by the Central Commission of Medical and Labor Accreditation, a government body made up of 15 people, 11 of whom are doctors. The commission reviews a list of mental and physical disorders and determines the percentage, generally without a physical exam.
As a result, Tenuun and thousands of others have trouble finding gainful employment. Employers assume she is more disabled than she is based on her assigned percentage. She now works one day a week at a supermarket but considers the income insufficient.
“Everyone asks the percentage of loss of ability to work when I call on the phone, after I fill out the application form or when I interview in person,” Tenuun says. She’s required to disclose it.
Mongolia’s labor code requires employers with more than 25 employees to ensure that 4% of their workers are people who have been assigned a loss-of-work percentage associated with their disability.
But few employers follow that rule, and the loss-of-work percentage makes employers hesitant to hire people with disabilities, says Chuluun-Erdene Mijigsenge, a labor specialist at the General Agency for Development of Persons with Disabilities, a government agency within the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection.
According to the People with Disabilities Employment Study of 2018, published by the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection, just 39% of registered businesses in Mongolia were in compliance with the law. And only 19% of Mongolians with disabilities hold jobs.
“When there are two job candidates, one with disabilities and the other one without, with exactly the same education and knowledge, they see the disability and hire the other first,” says Chuluun-Erdene.
That’s in part because employers misunderstand what loss of work ability really means, he says.
Bolorchimeg Enkhbayar was told she’d lost 70% of her ability to work after she dislocated her hip.
She’s been steadily employed as a file clerk at the National Center for Communicable Diseases since 2013. But before she got this job, she says she was denied from many others. She didn’t get her current job until she requested that her percentage change from 70% to 60%.
When it was approved, she says, she landed a job – even though her abilities hadn’t changed.
“Employers should check what a person can do in the first place,” Bolorchimeg says.
Chuluun-Erdene agrees. He says a change in how people with disabilities are classified would improve employment outcomes. He and other disability rights advocates are urging the government to adopt the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health standard, which more precisely defines abilities, but not in relation to ability to work.
“People in a wheelchair here are viewed as having 80% of loss of ability to work,” he says. “The ICF system would classify them as having lost their ability to walk, not work. Eighty percent loss of ability to work and a loss of ability to walk are completely different, right?”
The change, which has been pending before the Central Commission of Medical and Labor Accreditation for six years, would allow employers to better understand complex disabilities and not rule out candidates from the start, Chuluun-Erdene says.
But it’s not just about semantics, says Undrakhbayar Chuluundavaa, head of Universal Development Independent Living Center, an organization that helps people with disabilities find jobs and live independently.
Undrakhbayar says most businesses in Mongolia are small businesses, and employing people with disabilities creates hardships.
“If they employ a person in a wheelchair, they will have to modify the stairs of the organization and build a special bathroom for that person,” he says. “Small organizations normally would not spend money on such things. Instead, it will be better to employ a person without disabilities.”