Entities that support people with an intellectual impairment are making an effort to lower the high unemployment rates affecting these people. Koldo Andrés and Zuriñe Torrontegui are two young workers who earn their living working for Eroski and Zara, respectively

Koldo Andrés’ alarm clock wakes him up at 4.40 every morning. “I don´t like getting up early”, says this 36-year-old citizen of Bilbao. After having breakfast and donning his uniform, he goes to the Eroski supermarket in Txurdinaga, where he works from 06:00 to 09:30 stacking shelves with products, such as soap, toothpaste, shower gel, aluminium foil… He is one of those employees that is more or less invisible, who ensures that everything is in its place when the establishment opens so that customers can fill their baskets and trolleys. Nine years after signing his employment contract, Koldo has even become a partner of this chain of supermarkets. In addition, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, he helps in the refectory of a school, Artatxe, in Txurdinaga, where he studied.koldo-1

Another important firm, in this case Zara, gave Zuriñe Torrontegui an opportunity in 2011. This young woman (28) works from Monday to Friday unpacking the garments and accessories that arrive in the shop’s warehouse behind the hotel Carlton in Bilbao. “Sometimes the accessories don’t come with the references and I have to include them”, explains Zuriñe, who is happy to tell how she had to invite her closest friends to a coffee when she got an indefinite-term contract. “Now my sister makes me crazy talking about clothes!”, she exclaims.

Koldo and Zuriñe are two of the 35 people who have found work thanks to the LAN labour insertion programme of the Basque Country Foundation for the Down Syndrome and Other Intellectual Disabilities. This initiative, based on the employment support initiative (EcA) launched in 1994 and with funding from Lanbide and the European Social Fund, seeks to enable this social group to access the labour market. “We visit companies, we study the various positions these people can occupy with them and, when an opportunity arises, we provide them with some candidates. The company arranges an interview, just as if it were going to cover any other position, and decides who it wants to hire”, says Laura Fernández, the entity’s technical director.

Before reaching this point, young people are trained in the necessary job, adaptive and social skills that will help them successfully cope with their new professional careers. “Our training can take two, three or four years, whatever is needed. Over the years, we have developed the following professional profiles: shop assistant, office assistant, library assistant, assistant cook, and bartender”, she says. However, she stresses that the sectors in which these people have found jobs are quite diverse and range from bars and restaurants, shops, transport, communication, cleaning, consultancy, and real estate, among others.

Initial accompaniment

When a person finds a job, one of the Foundation’s job support staff will help them to do all the tasks required until they can fend for themselves, they check whether any equipment should be adapted and help in the relationship with other colleagues. Once this integration process, which may last several weeks, is over, the support person will monitor progress with occasional meetings with the workers, their families, and a representative from the company. “The challenge is not to find a job, but to keep it. Therefore, we need a commitment from the company, we want the company to select the worker for the position because that person meets the requirements, not for a matter of image”, says Fernández.zurine-2

Even though with the appropriate training and accompaniment, people with intellectual disabilities can do almost any job, this group has very high unemployment rates. Last year, 1,520 people found jobs in Spain through support employment services, according to the report titled AESE 2015. In the Basque Country, this figure was 45, according to the report by Foro EcA Euskadi; i.e. 25% of the total number of jobs involving workers with some type of disability. A significant decrease, as the figure for 2015 stood at 51%. “These data need to improve; this is often due to the lack of awareness regarding the potential of these people”, acknowledges Laura Fernández.

Employment, as the technical director of the Foundation never tires of saying, “is very important in adulthood. It provides emotional and material well-being, rights, responsibilities… It opens the doors to other levels of independence, to the future, to deciding how you want to live, whether you are earning enough… This role is essential for adults”. A role that Zuriñe and Koldo can now play, since their alarm clocks announce that, like thousands of workers, they have to get up early for a new working day.


 “They not only do their work, they contribute ideas, enthusiasm, and motivation”

Urtzi Urrutia is another young person with Down syndrome who has found a job; in this case with Autobuses La Union (a bus company). The company’s quality manager, María Eugenia Irazoqui, stresses how well he has integrated into the work environment. “His colleagues highlight his admirable capacity for work and self-improvement”, she says.

 – What does Urtzi do in the company?

Urtzi has been an inspector at the Termibus coach station in Bilbao since June 2015. His job consists of checking the coaches’ safety elements, such as safety belts, fire extinguishers, and hammers every day before the coaches can take on passengers. We have given priority to assigning him a particularly important job in an environment where our customers can see him working like any other worker. We believe this contributes to improving his image as a worker and his labour insertion. He works from 09:30 to 13:30.

– What led you to fill this vacancy with a person with disabilities?

We are a socially responsible company and are fully committed to contributing to the development of conditions that will lead to a more favourable social environment. With this in mind, in June 2015, we signed cooperation agreements with the Basque Country Foundation for Down Syndrome and Other Intellectual Disabilities, and with the Isabel Orbe Foundation in Vitoria-Gasteiz, to favour hiring their members. With this decision, we want to take another step in integrating these groups. We are aware that companies are a driving force for social change and, therefore, we want to contribute our grain of sand.

– What are Urtzi’s main qualities?

Mainly his sensitivity, his willingness to help, and his enthusiasm. The good feelings he inspires are quite amazing. His colleagues highlight his admirable capacity for work and self-improvement. He always wants to do more and asks for new tasks; he is tenacious and a perfectionist.

– Are you satisfied with his work?

Urtzi is another member of the workforce of Autobuses La Unión. From the start, we trusted in the positive effects he would have in the organisation and we were not wrong.

– Would you advise other companies to hire people like him?

If you have never dealt with a person with intellectual disabilities in the workplace, you may be concerned and have doubts. You wonder how you should treat them, how you are going to tell them what to do, how you should train them, or how they will react in certain situations. It’s normal, but those insecurities soon go away. There is a support person who solves all your queries and is at your disposal to tutor the integration of the person into the organisation. They teach the person his tasks for the first days; they even accompany them to do the job. Before you know it, they are simply another worker like the rest. They not only do their job, they provide ideas, enthusiasm, and motivation in a task that is very important for a company. We not only encourage other companies to do the same, we are sure they would not regret it.