Opening ceremony of the CDI-HSG with former US President Bill Clinton The Center for Disability and Integration (CDI-HSG) at the University of St.Gallen (HSG), Switzerland, was opened on November 5th, 2009 with an event which calls on all sectors of society, and particularly companies, to take on the challenging but economically competitive step of employing more people with disabilities. In his capacity as patron of the MyHandicap Foundation, which gave a private donation to establish the CDI-HSG, President Bill Clinton said that the work of the newly-formed Center will be very important to improve the lives of people with disabilities, both in Switzerland and in Europe, to shift from a system of helplessness to empowerment. "The establishment of this center reflects two very large developments that are going on in society today. The first is the attempt to empower the disabled, the second is the ability to do it through the rise of non-governmental organizations," he said, referring to the donation of MyHandicap Foundation to fund the Center, and to the conviction of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) that the most urgent political and societal problems can only be solved jointly by governments, the private sector and non-government organizations. "We have a lot to learn from brave people with disabilities…it is a form of unconscionable arrogance to consign people, whose disabilities are more physically obvious than others, to be anything less than they can be. This center is designed to change that," he said. Introducing the ComToAct-Award At the event, attended by high profile representatives from academia, trade, industry and politics, CDI-HSG announced its initiative "Commitment to Action: Providing Opportunities for People with Disabilities", where companies will be awarded for integrating people with disabilities into the workforce. Such an initiative aims to meet not only the human need and desire to work, but also to lessen the fiscal responsibility of disability pensions on the taxpayer. Challenge for social security systems Governments are increasingly alarmed at the growth in the number of disability benefit recipients, which exceeds five per cent of the population aged 20-64 in the 28 OECD countries, and accounts for seven per cent of the population in the UK. These growing disability rates challenge social security systems. In 2004, total spending on disability benefits alone corresponded to one per cent of GDP in all OECD countries (UK: 1.5 per cent). This is a huge commitment of resources — almost three times higher than, for instance, countries’ commitment to unemployment benefits. Despite this, the economic and social implications of disability allowance payments, and the integration and re-integration of people with disabilities into the labour force, have been mostly overlooked by university research in the past. Closing knowledge gaps The newly-opened Center for Disability and Integration (CDI-HSG) at the University of St.Gallen (HSG) aims to bridge this gap in knowledge by combining the skills of management experts, economists and psychologists to help further the economic and social integration of people with disabilities to lasting effect by examining, for example, how social insurance systems could be structured; the incentives for employers taking on people with disabilities; and how people with disabilities may be integrated into corporate cultures. Message of the joint press conference: Integration is economically meaningful As a part of the opening ceremony, a joint press conference was held in which researchers of the CDI-HSG as well as representatives from industry took part. Joachim Schoss supports the "Commitment to Action" initiative. He said that people with disabilities are valuable employees and that there are hard economic reasons as to why to employ them. "The integration of people with disabilities into the workforce makes economic sense and there is plenty of evidence that, for the person affected, it is extremely positive for him or her. The reality is that we now need to convince employers so that they, too, can see how they can benefit from employing people with disabilities," he said. German retail company, Metro Group, which has a diverse portfolio of retail companies in Europe, Africa and Asia, employs people with serious disabilities, saying that a corporate culture of diversity is central to this success factor. Metro Group Chief Human Resource Officer, Chief Information Officer and Board Member, Zygmunt Mierdorf, who was present at the opening, said that for any organization to remain competitive in the long-term it has to harness all forces in society, which also means giving people with disabilities work opportunities. "People with disabilities want one thing above all else, to be integrated, so that they are able to deliver whatever they are able to. For this purpose, barriers must be removed — spatial and technical ones — but also mental ones. To this end, managers, employees and works councils are systematically trained and prepared for the employment and integration of people with disabilities," Mierdorf said. Director of CDI-HSG, Dr. Stephan Boehm, emphasized not only the advantage of being employed for people with disabilities, but also highlighted the positive effects for companies. "By promoting integration in the areas of leadership, organizational culture, and human resource management, companies are able to enhance not only the productivity of employees with disabilities, but of their entire workforce and, therefore, gain an enduring competitive advantage," he said.