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Categorizing clients with disabilities

Exploring the gap between political goals and practice in municipal employment centres
Catégoriser les clients handicapés. Explorer l’écart entre les objectifs politiques et la pratique dans les centres d’emploi municipaux
Finn Amby et Lena Kjeldsen
p. 63-81


Depuis plus de deux décennies, les gouvernements scandinaves expriment leur volonté d’augmenter le taux d’emploi des personnes handicapées. Malgré la réaffirmation ininterrompue de cette volonté politique, ce taux est resté jusqu’à ce jour nettement inférieur à celui des personnes non handicapées. Les centres municipaux pour l’emploi – et, par conséquent, les travailleurs sociaux qui y œuvrent – disposent d’une grande latitude pour classer les clients présentant des déficiences permanentes susceptibles d’entraîner un handicap dans la recherche d’un emploi. Jusqu’à maintenant, les recherches se sont principalement concentrées sur le processus de classification des déficiences des personnes en recherche d’emploi. Par contraste, cette étude explore le processus par lequel les personnes souffrant de handicaps permanents sont catégorisées dans les centres d’emploi danois lors de leurs premières interactions avec les travailleurs sociaux. Les résultats d’un sondage (n=69) et d’entretiens qualitatifs (n=9) montrent un très faible degré de catégorisation formelle ainsi qu’un manque d’attention portée aux problématiques du handicap et de l’accès à l’emploi. Toutefois, ce manque d’attention ne signifie pas qu’aucune classification n’est effectuée, car les travailleurs sociaux utilisent des catégories issues de catégories politiques ou sociales adjacentes comme le système d’emploi flexible. L’une des conséquences de cette absence de classification pourrait être que les agences pour l’emploi n’identifient pas les défaillances des chômeurs, ce qui réduit la possibilité de les aider. Toutefois, un niveau de classification plus élevé comporte également des inconvénients tels que la stigmatisation.

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Notes de l’auteur

We would like to thank the reviewers of the paper for their constructive comments. The alterations have made significant improvements on the article.

Texte intégral

1. Introduction

1For many years, a low employment rate among people with disabilities has been considered a political problem in Europe, including in Denmark (OECD, 2010; Regeringen, 2004; Regeringen, 2013; Regeringen, 2018). Despite this, we observe little to no progress in improving this low employment rate. According to survey results from 2020, the employment rate for people with disabilities in Denmark is 55 percent, compared to 84 percent for people without disabilities (Larsen, Jacobsen & Mikkelsen, 2021). For almost two decades the difference in employment rate between people with and without disabilities has been around 30 percent (ibid.).

2The lack of success in improving the employment rate among people with disabilities undoubtedly has several explanations, both among people with disabilities (the supply side), in private and public companies (the demand side) and in the employment system. The starting point for this paper is the assumption that local employment initiatives can have a significant impact on whether a national political desire to get more people with disabilities into regular employment can be realized. With the assumption that disability often poses challenges both on the supply and demand sides of the labour market, intervention through the municipal employment centers (job centres) will help address these problems.

3Furthermore, the literature on street-level bureaucracy has shown that in addition to local policy, the discretion of the individual caseworker is crucial (Brodkin, 2010; Evans, 2010; Lipsky, 2010). Categorization is an inherent and complex part of caseworkers’ discretion (Bourdieu, 1987; Yanow, 2003). In addition to the politically determined categories present in legislation, there is a complex interplay between the political and the social categories used by social workers.

4According to a classical top-down perspective, six sufficient and generally necessary conditions for the effective implementation of legal objectives can be identified (Sabatier, 1986). Two of them are especially relevant here: 1) clear and consistent objectives, and 2) an implementation process that is legally structured to enhance compliance by implementing officials and target groups. The position of disability in Danish employment policy illustrates severe problems in fulfilling these conditions (Amby, 2015a). The employment situation for people with disabilities was not directly included as part of the problem to be identified in the labour market and employment policy in the period 1992-2017, and none of its instruments specifically targeted the problem. People with disability were not included in the definition of target groups in the general employment policy, and recent large-scale reforms seem to continue down the same path (Amby, 2015b; Amby et al., 2020). As a result, a loose and insufficient connection exists between the overall policy goal and the local employment service. It is therefore not sufficient to examine whether the job centres meet the objectives that are directly provided by the law. Instead, we need to focus on the local practices.

5Data gathered in 2012 and 2019 from managers and key-caseworkers working with people with disabilities in Danish job centres showed repeatedly that few systematic efforts were being made to provide support for unemployed job-ready people with disabilities (Amby, 2015a; Amby et al., 2020). These studies give little evidence that local authorities generally take initiative in this area beyond what they are required to do by law, but there are wide variations between job centres. These studies contribute little to explaining these variations though.

6The aim of this paper is to provide new knowledge about job centres’ handling of disability, primarily from a street-level perspective through a lens of categorization. Hence, this study offers the field additional insight by exploring the process in which people with permanent impairments are categorized during their first interactions with the job centre and by asking two interconnected questions:

a) To what extent do job centres construct categories that capture clients with permanent impairments?

b) How do caseworkers identify whether (and to what extent) clients in search for new employment have permanent impairments that can be considered disabilities?

7As the framing of these research questions demonstrates, we use a relational understanding of disability. This means that a permanent impairment primarily becomes a disability in interaction with the environment, as elaborated upon below.

8The empirical data for this study consists of a survey conducted among caseworkers in eleven job centres in Denmark and interviews with both caseworkers and managers in three of those job centres.

9In the next section, we situate the study and provide a brief historical overview of disability and employment in Denmark. After this, we put forward the theoretical framework and methodological considerations behind the study. Combined, these sections form the basis for the analysis and the concluding remarks.

1.1. Categorization studies of unemployed people

10Several scholars have studied processes of categorization (e.g. Bourdieu, 1987; Caswell, Marston & Larsen, 2010; Garsten & Jacobsson, 2013; Rosenthal & Peccei, 2006). In this section, we focus solely on the studies in the field of employment and disability starting with studies in which disability plays an implicit role and ending with studies with an explicit focus on disability. In the theoretical section we include studies not pertaining to disability when appropriate.

11In a comparative study, Caswell, Marston & Larsen (2010) studied the technologies used to categorize unemployed citizens in Australia and Denmark arguing that the process has become technocratic with a tendency to reduce complex problems to statistical scores or categories. The study does not explicitly mention permanent impairments since it is not a category in the legislation (ibid.: 401). Stone & Møller (2013) studied how the “active labour market” regime influences caseworkers’ discretionary practice regarding clients on sick leave. They concluded that caseworkers categorize people with impairments in terms of “genuine barriers” to work or “personal willingness’ to work” (ibid.: 601). These social categories potentially reduce impairments to willingness although the caseworkers may not know the extent of an impairment (or the comorbidity of impairments). A common denominator in both mentioned studies is that they largely focused on employment and categorization in which disability played a minor role or had already been categorized.

12A handful of Swedish studies focus solely on disability and employment. As opposed to Denmark, occupational disability has been an explicit category in the legislation in Sweden for more than two decades demarking different permanent impairments. If categorized in one of these categories (e.g. blindness), the unemployed person gains right to specific measures through employment laws. Garsten & Jacobsson (2013) and Jacobsson & Seing (2013) particularly focused on the consequences for clients arguing that the categorization can be viewed as stigmatizing when at times they do not consider themselves as having a disability. We will return to this point in the discussion at the end of the paper. Because people who are categorized as having an occupational disability gain the right to extra measures in the job centres, the job centres receive additional funding to perform these measures. Holmquist (2008), Johansson & Skedinger (2009) and Angelov & Eliason (2018) studied these financial incentives and concluded that the legislation gives the caseworkers an incentive to categorize many people with permanent impairment. It is however difficult to determine whether and how the job centres act on the incentive in practice (Angelov & Eliason, 2018: 48; Johansson & Skedinger, 2009: 430-1).

13To sum up, earlier studies have largely focused on employment and categorization in which disability plays a minor role or in settings where disability is an explicit category in the legislation (e.g. in Sweden). This study contributes to the literature by exploring the process of categorizing a target group that goes beyond the political categories in the legislation. Put differently, this study asks how caseworkers categorize permanent impairments in a legislative context where there are minimal formal categories available.

1.2. Disability and employment in Denmark: A historical overview

14The actual position of disability in Danish job centres must be seen in the context of major changes both in the understanding of disability and in employment policy in general over the last 25 years (Amby, 2015a). The purpose of this section, therefore, is to establish a basis for the later analysis through a historical overview.

1.2.1. The concept of disability

15Disabilities have traditionally been viewed from a narrow medical understanding. A disability was regarded as a flaw in the individual that in most cases could be coupled with a medical diagnosis, and many people with disabilities found themselves institutionalized. During the 1960s, new objectives related to normalization and integration gradually made it more obvious that disability also represented a political issue with which society in general had to deal. In the Scandinavian countries, the new understanding of disability resulted in the relational conceptualization of disability (Gustavson, 2005; Shakespeare, 2006). Here, impairment is still attributed significance, but an impairment only results in disability if the environment is not designed appropriately. When we talk about categorizing people in the job centres, it is important to note that we do not mean a medical diagnosis. Instead, the purpose of a categorization is to identify permanent impairments that could be a disability in the search for employment. When identified, it is possible for the caseworker and the client to have a conversation about what consequences the impairment may have in getting a job. Perhaps it would be prudent to search for jobs in areas where the impairment would not be a major barrier or to attain knowledge about specific measures to minimize barriers (e.g. personal aids).

1.2.2. Disability in the general employment policy

16Since the 1990s we have seen a shift in Danish social and employment policy where employment has surfaced as the primary goal – a tendency sometimes referred to as a shift from welfare to workfare (Caswell, Marston & Larsen, 2010). An inherent part of this shift is an inclusion of additional target groups in the employment policies (Larsen & Andersen, 2019). In 2002-03, the legislative reform in connection with the political agreement “More in work” meant that the legislation regarding getting people with disabilities employed formally became part of the overall employment effort (Regeringen, 2002). The legislative package, however, did not include any signals about the need to give special attention to the group (Amby, 2015a).

17As a result of a restructuring of the administrative system in Denmark, job centres were established in every municipality starting in 2005. In 2008 it was decided to place the entire responsibility for employment-directed measures with the municipalities. This decentralization was combined with national New Public Management performance measurements and benchmarking (Larsen, 2013). Disability or permanent impairment was not selected as an independent target group, and municipalities are not required to be especially aware of unemployed persons with disabilities among the insured unemployed and welfare recipients (Amby, 2015a).

18A common denominator of the labour market reforms in Denmark in the last two decades is a very low degree of references to people with disabilities (Amby, 2015a; Amby et al., 2020). The same is the case for the centrally established requirements for reporting data, which is the basis for the accounting of results in the job centres and for how the employment regions monitor the work carried out in the centres. Disability is not defined as an independent group that is to be reported, and there is no reporting of activities for early pensioners and persons with disabilities recently graduated from further education. Hence, as we argued in the introduction, the individual job centre and caseworker have wide room for discretion.

19An exception to the lack of focus on permanent impairments is the Compensation Act that describes a range of measures available to people with disabilities (Ministry of Employment, 2020). In the Compensation Act §2, the target group is defined as “Persons who due to disability [in Danish: handicap] have difficulties in getting and obtaining employment without compensation.” A primary measure of the Compensation Act is personal assistance which is defined as “Employees, self-employed and unemployed, who due to substantially reduced physical or mental function capacity need particular personal assistance” (Ministry of Employment, 2020: §4). The Compensation Act is interesting in relation to our study, because it contains a definition of disability. However, the law does not establish processes for categorizing permanent impairments, and hence identifying people eligible for measures in the act is left to local and individual categorization processes.

1.3. Theoretical point of departure

20Our understanding of the policy implementation process primarily builds on the integrated implementation model (Winter & Nielsen, 2008). According to this model, the policy implementation process takes place within the frames of a given policy's design and consists of organizational and inter-organizational implementation behaviour, management, the behaviour of street-level bureaucrats and target-group behaviour. Together, these processes lead to implementation results in the form of performance (output) and effect on the target group (outcome), which are the dependent variables in the model. Utilizing implementation results, feedback mechanisms can lead back to both policy design and the implementation process itself. Finally, all elements in the model can be affected by changes in the socio-economic environment.

21Though our focus will be on frontline caseworkers, according to the integrated implementation model organizational and managerial factors play an important role in caseworkers’ interpretation of political objectives and legislation and in their decisions with different target groups in practice (Winter & Nielsen, 2008). Categories and categorization play a key role for frontline caseworkers as they exercise discretion in this process (Harrits & Møller, 2016).

1.3.1. Political and social categories

22Categories are social constructions, and categorization is a natural part of human life. By categorization we mean the process of identifying “similarities and differences between things and human beings” (Caswell, Marston & Larsen, 2010: 389). Categories also play an important role in politics:

Governance is conducted through rules, and rules are composed of categories. Every rule divides people by their identity, their behaviour, or their situations, and then specifies how members of different categories are treated differently. (Stone, 2005: 1)

23Ingram and Schneider originally defined target groups as “… persons, groups, or firms selected for behavioural change by public policy initiatives such as statues, agency guide­lines, or operational programs” (Ingram & Schneider, 1991: 334). The international literature concerning the social construction of target groups and the consequences for policymaking has paid little attention to the question of disability. In an examination of 111 applications of Ingram and Schneider’s theory in scientific articles, 141 target populations are identified (Pierce et al., 2014), but remarkably, disability does not appear on this list.

24Ingram and Schneider have been criticized for simplifying the complex relationship between social and political categories because the social construction of a category is often affected by other factors than the strength of the group and whether the group is looked upon positively or negatively (Harrits & Møller, 2011; Soss, 2005). Furthermore, it is not always easy to determine who to include and who to exclude from a given category (Yanow, 2003). Political categories are constructed within the political and administrative field as an expression of the “legitimate use of state power” (Harrits & Møller, 2011: 234). Hence, political categories can be identified both in legal acts and in administrative practices in political institutions. In contrast, social categories are constructed outside the political and administrative field. Bourdieu (1987: 2) argues that actors are “both classified [objects] and classifiers [subjects], but they classify according to (or depending upon) their position within classifications.” This makes the construction of social categories complex as people continuously construct and maintain social categories by demarcating boundaries between themselves and other groupings such as gender and ethnicity (Bourdieu, 1987). As such, the relationship between political and social categories is complex because they continuously influence each other, making it difficult to define and distinguish between the two types of categories (Bourdieu, 1987; Harrits & Møller, 2011). To summarize, we view political categories as demarcations that can be found in law and organizational guidelines and social categories as classifications derived from everyday language and categories.

25Uncertainty about definitions of and boundaries between target groups will therefore have consequences both in policy design and in the implementation process. This is also the case when it comes to disability. Disability policy is both defining the target group and helping to establish efforts in relationship to this group. In the time where support for people with disabilities was provided by specialized institutions (e.g. an institution for the blind, deaf and the developmentally disabled), disability was an umbrella term for a number of clearly defined groups, each with its medically defined characteristics. With the relational concept of disability, impairment is considered central at the individual level, even though disability first occurs with barriers in the environment. Unattached to the definition of medically defined characteristics, disability becomes a blurred concept. In this regard, studies have shown that caseworkers turn to social categories in the absence of clear political ones in categorizing the client, e.g. their perceived attitude towards work or physical appearance (Rosenthal & Peccei, 2006).

26All in all, the absence of clear political definitions regarding disability leaves wide discretion to the individual caseworker. But how is this discretion conducted in practice, and what role do organizational and managerial factors play in the discretion of the frontline caseworker? More knowledge about that will give new insights about the relationship between political and social categories in this particular situation. Based on this background, we have the following expectations, which we use as guidelines in our analysis.

27Frontline caseworker

• We expect that the caseworkers have difficulties defining disability/permanent impairments as a political category.

• We expect that the caseworkers construct social categories to determine whether the client has a disability that can hinder their labour market inclusion.

28Organizational and managerial factors

• We expect that organizational conditions and managerial decisions as an expression of political categories in practice affect the caseworker’s discretion behaviour.

• We expect that organizational decisions about forms or other instruments will guide the caseworker’s categorization processes.

2. Methods

29The empirical data for this study is comprised of a survey among caseworkers in 11 job centres and interviews with caseworkers and department managers in three of those job centres. By employing a strategy of mixed methods, this study was able to identify patterns of practice across a wide section of caseworkers in different municipalities in various regions of Denmark while offering a unique insight into the practices of caseworkers in three job centres in a specific region in Denmark. Hence, the study used a sequential mixed-method explanatory design with the results from the survey utilized as a basis for the interviews and the interviews illuminating the results of the survey (Creswell et al., 2003). The survey asked questions concerning the caseworkers’ knowledge about the term “disability” and when they usually make judgements about whether a client has a disability. The goal of the survey was to identify organizational procedures. In the survey, we used the wording “disability or permanent impairment” (in Danish: handicap eller langvarig funktionsnedsættelse) when asking about disabilities. We used both wordings because of the lack of a political category to identify disability as described earlier.

30The second phase of the study consisted of interviews with caseworkers and managers. Based on the research questions and the complexity that surrounds identifying political and social categories, we believe that it is more fruitful to identify the process of categorization through caseworkers’ own words rather than fixed response categories. Hence, the purpose of the interviews was to gain a deeper understanding of the latent and at times subconscious categorization employed by caseworkers. In the presentation of the results, we reflect on the four expectations we formulated in the theoretical section using both the quantitative and qualitative results of the study. In doing so, the quantitative data will be used to identify the extent of the use of categorization and the qualitative data to gain an understanding of the reflections behind the identified practices.

31The study adheres to the Danish Code of Conduct for Research Integrity which stipulates that all phases of the research process has to adhere to principles of honesty, transparency and accountability. (Ministry of Higher Education and Science, 2014). In the planning and data collecting phase the participants for the study were presented with the aim of the study, promised anonymity and informed about data management including the deletion of data. Data was stored on computers with restricted access and will be deleted after five years or until after publication. This information was presented to the participants prior to gaining informed consent.

32The object of study is the professional judgement of caseworkers. Hence, we do not view the participants as vulnerable or the topic particularly sensitive. In Denmark, most universities and universities of applied sciences are only in the process of creating ethics committees in the social sciences. The project has no conflict of interest.

2.1. Survey

33The online survey was distributed in 11 job centres in two waves, the first in October 2016 and the second in February-April 2017. In both cases the survey was distributed by email followed by a reminder two weeks after distribution. The survey remained open for another week before closing for additional participants. In total, the survey was distributed by email to 136 participants, of which 9 email addresses turned out to be invalid and were deleted from the study, making the sample 127. The response rate for the study is 54 percent (n=69).

34In the survey, 78 percent of the respondents were women, 34 percent of the respondents were aged 50-59, 22 percent were respectively 30-39 and 40-49 and 11 percent respectively under 30 and over 60 years of age. 61 percent of the respondents has a professional bachelor’s degree, 17 percent has a vocational education, 13 percent has a master’s degree and the remainder no formal education. We assess that the gender distribution is similar to the total population of job center employees in Denmark. Neither of these variables turned out to have any explanatory power in the analysis.

35Out of the 69 respondents, 54 percent (n=37) work with unemployed clients on unemployment benefits, 35 percent (n=24) work with unemployed clients on social assistance and the remaining 11 percent (n=8) work with clients on sick leave, who are completing rehabilitation or who are participating in a job capacity assessment. The latter group is excluded in the analysis of the process of identifying permanent impairments among unemployed citizens because their clients have already undergone categorization. They are, however, included in the analysis of how the caseworkers construct categories that capture clients with permanent impairments. We have deliberately chosen to include caseworkers who work with both the unemployed closest to the labour market (unemployment benefits), unemployed a little further from the labour market (social assistance) and the unemployed farthest away from the labour market. Regardless of which type of unemployed, caseworkers engage in counselling and administrative tasks concerning the unemployed. The reason for this is that people with permanent impairment are present in all target groups (Amby et al., 2020).

36Gaining access to caseworkers proved to be a hard task due to two factors. First, the employment field has been marked by large-scale national reforms for many years creating a growing body of paperwork for the individual caseworker. This causes managers of job centres to decline participation in external research projects. Second, in more than one occasion, we experienced that managers had difficulties relating to the theme of the study. Instead, the job centres focus on the resources of the client and not the limitations.

37Besides some background questions, the surveys covered the following themes: definitions of disability, counselling efforts for unemployed in the job centre, focus on unemployed with disabilities, special efforts to assist this group and compensational measures. Lastly, the survey contained a comment section where the respondents could write comments not covered in the survey. These comments turned out to hold interesting views and so we also use the comments in our analysis.

38The sequential mixed-methods design proscribes a full analysis of the quantitative data before embarking on the gathering of qualitative data (Ivankova, Creswell & Stick, 2006). We chose to conduct a preliminary analysis of the first wave of data from 2016 in which 4 job centres participated (n=45). Hence, the qualitative part of the study builds on the first wave of the survey. In the end, this did not become a decisive issue as the results from the second wave were in line with the results of the first results from 2016. Additionally, the number of respondents in the first wave of the survey account for 65 percent of the total number of respondents.

39Overall, the response rate is satisfactory within the sample. It is, however, worth noting that there is a difference within the sample in regards to the respondents. In four job centres, the survey was distributed to all the caseworkers, whereas in the other seven, the survey was distributed to all the caseworkers in one department: in four job centres to all caseworkers in departments working with clients on social assistance, and in the latter three to those who were working with clients on unemployment benefits. In addition, we had no means of validating the number of caseworkers in the individual departments or the total population of caseworkers in Danish job centres. The quality of the overall sample is therefore dependent on the degree to which the leaders of the job centres have sent us the correct number of emails. Because of these uncertainties, it is difficult to generalize the results of the survey to the remaining job centres in Denmark. Data from the survey was analysed in SPSS using descriptive statistics such as frequency tables and crosstabulation and tests for statistical significance of the tables.

2.2. Interviews

40The interviews were conducted in the spring of 2017 (February-April) in three job centres that participated in the first wave of the study. The job centres are situated in Jutland and are of varying sizes. Job centres A and B are a part of relatively small municipality with less than 50.000 inhabitants, while job centre C caters to more than 50.000 inhabitants. We would argue that the job centres can be considered typical for Danish standards in regard to demographic factors.

41Six caseworkers participated in a group interview with the purpose of creating a space for joint reflection between the caseworkers about how they identify permanent impairment in people. This form of interviews is especially suited to uncover underlying beliefs and opinions (Wilkinson, 1988). The group interviews were conducted at the job centers and lasted between 50 minutes and 1 hour and 3 minutes.

42Although the object of interest for this study is the practices of caseworkers, we also chose to include individual interviews with three department managers to identify the guidelines of the job centres and how they affect individual caseworkers, bringing the total number of participants to nine. We interviewed a department manager in all three job centres. The interviews lasted between 30 minutes and one hour.

43The topics covered in the interview with the caseworkers concerned their first meeting with the unemployed with a focus on the categorization process (e.g. how do you categorize the client according to the legislation?) and interactions during the first six months of unemployment. The same topics were covered in the interviews with the department managers, however with a focus on supporting organizational procedures such as e.g. digital schemes.

44The informants in the interviews were predominantly women (78 percent), the 3 department managers all have a professional bachelor degree in social work, while 67 percent (n=4) of the caseworkers have a vocational education and the remaining two a Master’s degree.

45The interviews were transcribed in Danish (quotes for the article translated into English) and underwent a thematic analysis in which a theme is understood as a “patterned response or meaning” (Braun & Clarke, 2006: 79). The thematic analysis was primarily theoretical identifying political (derived from legislation) and social categories used to describe people with permanent impairments. Since political categories also derive from organizational and managerial conditions, we also included a theme about this. Both authors coded all interviews followed by a discussion about how the identified themes captured something relevant to the research question (ibid.: 82). However, as Braun & Clarke (2008) argue it is important not to create rigid guidelines as other important themes might appear when reading the transcribed interviews. Consequently, we decided to create an open theme to include other relevant observations. In the end, this turned out to be a blessing as there was a tendency across our interviews for the participants to categorize people with permanent impairments by political categories related to another target group. We elaborate on this finding in the analysis.

3. Results

46As the theoretical section of this paper underscores, there is an inherent connection between the construction of political and social categories because the two influence each other continuously. In spite of this, we have chosen to separate the analysis of these concepts into two different sections, knowing that this is an artificial and theoretical distinction. The third section in the analysis deals with organizational and managerial priorities and their influence on the caseworker’s discretion. For all sections, both results from the survey and the interviews are reported because they can strengthen each other’s validity.

3.1. Defining disability as a political category

47One of the opening questions in the survey concerns whether the job centre has a working definition of disability or long-term impairment. As figure 1 illustrates, 17 percent (n=12) of the respondents says that their job centres have such a definition, while 36 percent (n=25) says that their job centre does not have a working definition.

Figure 1. Definition of disability in the individual job centre (N:69) (Question: Does your job centre have a working definition of disability or permanent impairment?)

48Perhaps even more striking, 46 percent (n=32) are not aware whether their job centre has a working definition of disability or long-term impairment. This result could indicate a general lack of focus on people with permanent impairments or disability as a whole. Another interpretation could relate to the political and rhetorical shift in employment policies from disability as a target group to a widespread focus on the resources of the individual client (Herup Nielsen, 2015). This interpretation is underscored by a comment from a caseworker who participated in the survey in the comment section at the end of the survey:

In the job centre, we recognize that there are people with permanent impairments. However, we try to focus on the resources that the citizen actually has in regards to holding a job and supporting themselves and not the barriers that the impairment entail.

49This line of reasoning that primarily focus on the resources of the clients is echoed in the interviews in which all participants across job centres state a similar opinion. Another example is found in job centre B, the caseworker said:

No, we don’t [have a joint working definition]. People are met according to their resources and disabilities. Because even if you have the same diagnoses, there is a big difference in the resources that the individual hold, so we do not pigeonhole people like that. You cannot do that. (Caseworker 1)

Of course, if the person has a diagnosis, you assess whether it is serious or not. (Caseworker 2)

50The latter sentence makes an interesting point. During the interviews, some informants first define disability as a relational phenomenon in line with the definition in this article, and thereafter, they use medical categories such as Asperger’s syndrome or osteoarthritis to define disability. The tendency to describe disability through medical categories is also present in the survey, indicating that a medical understanding of disability still exists.

51In addition, the data indicate yet another interesting find that we did not anticipate. Respondents in both types of data use political categories from adjacent legislation. In the interviews, especially those in one of the small job centres, participants use the term “personal capacity considerations” (skånehensyn) to categorize clients with disabilities.

Regarding people on unemployment benefits, we expect that they are job-ready. There may, however, be some personal capacity considerations that we have to consider […] That is a term we all use. (Manager in job centre A)

52When asked about the origin of this category, the informants (both the quoted manager and the caseworkers) replied that the category is in the law “somewhere,” which indicates a lack of awareness about the category. The category “personal capacity considerations” is also mentioned in the comments section of the survey as a word to describe disabilities. Subsequent investigation indicates that the category is in fact a part of employment legislation, but not in the overarching Act on Active Employment Efforts. Instead, the category is found in the Act on Sickness Benefit and the Act on Social Pension (Early Retirement Benefit and State Pension) and hence is used to categorize people who have already been categorized as having disabilities, not as a category to identify disability.

53In the survey, some respondents mentioned the Act on Compensation. Thus, the respondents during both the survey and the interviews apply the political category as loosely defined in the Act on Compensation as their frame of reference for categorizing clients with disabilities. The definition in the act, however, is not clear, as we pointed out in the historical overview.

54Based on the current literature on categorization, we expected that the caseworkers would have difficulties in defining disability as a political category. The results align with our expectations in that there seems to be a large percentage of respondents who said that they are not aware of whether their job centre has a working definition of disability or directly stated that they use a resource-oriented approach instead.

3.2. Defining disability as a social category

55In addition to the political categories, the caseworkers use different social categories in their construction of disability as a category. Social categories are difficult to capture in a survey, so this section only uses the results of the interviews. When the caseworkers were asked to describe how they determine that a client may have a permanent impairment in their daily interactions with clients, they initially all reacted with a long pause, followed by an attempt to describe a “sense” or “hunch.”

This [the first meeting with the client] is where we typically determine or feel that something is off, if something is actually off. Some clients are more open than others are and with some, we can sense if something is off because of our experience. (Caseworker 1)

Well, I think it is a matter of knowing general human behaviour that means you can sense what is lurking beneath. (Caseworker 2, job centre A)

They [the clients] are all different, but in a way, they are all alike. It is not called match 1-5 anymore, but ready to work, ready for education and so forth. Some, however, need more help and guidance than the normally unemployed. It is a hunch. (Caseworker in job centre C)

I would say that it is a hunch, but a hunch based on what the client tells us […] In my experience, it is not a problem identifying a physical disability, but rather the people who have experienced some sort of psychological crisis for some reason and therefore are very fragile. (Caseworker in job centre C)

56These are examples of different social categories that inform the caseworkers’ hunches. In the first example, the informant uses the category “off” to describe something being “wrong” with the client to demarcate the difference between wrong and right or abnormal and normal. This is also the case in the second example, in which the category “normally unemployed” is used. The last statement includes the category of “fragility” in regards to clients who have a mental impairment. Put differently, the caseworker builds on the political category of mental impairments to better describe the category. When asked what the caseworker meant by “fragility,” she explained that fragility often is expressed through tears or a feeling of hopelessness.

57In addition to these social categories, the caseworkers derive categories based on the clients’ educational records. In this case, the categories concern the type of class and the ability to finish an already initiated education.

I’m thinking that if I am dealing with a young client with low mental capacities, in that case, I can draw on the papers from UU [Youth Career guidance Centre] that will show if the person has been placed in a special class all through school that catches our attention. (Caseworker 1)

Yes, it gives us an indication. E.g. if the person has dropped out of 12 schools, it makes you wonder what the cause of this is and it makes you ask the person more questions. (Caseworker 2 in job centre B)

58As we expected, the caseworkers derive social categories to describe how they identify clients with disabilities. The categories are both used to describe clients with physical and mental impairments and underscore the complexity of the classification process.

3.3. Organizational and managerial priorities and their influence on the caseworker’s discretion

59Closely linked to the individual construction of disability as political and social categories are the organizational and managerial priorities that influence the individual caseworkers (Harrits & Møller, 2016). Hence, based on the theory on categorization and implementation, we expect that organizational conditions and managerial decisions affect the caseworker’s discretionary behaviour, including that organizational decisions about forms or other instruments guide caseworkers’ categorization processes.

60As explained in the historical section, employment policies have undergone a transformation during the past decades towards focusing on the individual’s resources instead of their limitations. This line of thinking is apparent in all three job centres, although to a varying degree. In job centre C, the interpretation seems to be the most extreme.

We do not categorize. As in never. The needs of the clients are 100 percent individual. (Caseworker in job centre C)

61In opposition to this statement, a caseworker in job centre A explained that the job centre is working on creating a dynamic scheme to categorize different impairments.

62In the comment section of the survey, a respondent pointed out:

There are only a few institutionalized procedures concerning aid to people with disability. A lot depends on whether or not the citizen chooses to bring it up in his conversations with his caseworker. If he chooses not to, disability is rarely a factor in the process.

63This quote aligns with a statement by a department manager in job centre C, who said that the chance of identifying a disability in clients depends on whether the client themselves chooses to speak about their impairment. However, the manager argues that the caseworker often can detect that something is “off” during meetings later in the process.

64The job centres are obliged to appoint at least one so-called key-caseworker (nøgleperson) with special knowledge about disability and the different means of compensation. Almost half of the respondents in the survey, however, did not know who their appointed key-caseworker is. Furthermore, there are big differences in the practice in relationship to the key-caseworker, i.e. 52 percent of the caseworkers who are responsible for clients on unemployment benefit answered that the key-caseworker normally is involved in cases in which disability is observed. In contrast, only 23 percent of caseworkers who are responsible for clients on social assistance gave the same answer. The results leave the impression that the job centres have only a few organizational procedures and a low degree of managerial awareness about the role of the key-caseworker.

  • 1 In a Danish context, an unemployment insurance fund is an independent authority from which members (...)

65Finally, the caseworkers pointed to the influence of the unemployment insurance funds.1 According to the Act on Active Employment, the client holds a meeting with their unemployment insurance fund before meeting with a caseworker at the job centre. Hence, in some cases the initial categorization process starts at the unemployment insurance fund because the counsellors there can make an initial judgement about whether the client needs extra support at the job centre.

4. Discussion

66This study contributes to knowledge about how caseworkers lack political categories to identify people with permanent impairments. As a result, the caseworkers use social categories to a larger extent and political categories from adjacent laws. The use of social categories to describe this target group is in line with earlier studies (e.g. Rosenthal & Peccei, 2006; Stone & Møller, 2013), but elaborates on these by showing the complex interplay where adjacent political categories also play a role in the categorization process. Additionally, the analysis demonstrates how the process of categorizing people with permanent impairments is also embedded in the political and rhetorical shift in employment policies from disability as a target group to a widespread focus on the resources of the individual client (Herup Nielsen, 2015).

67These findings hold implications for both people with disabilities and businesses. Obviously, the discussion of categorization covers a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, a lack of systematic categorization in relation to permanent impairments can have the consequence that jobseekers miss the potential support from the job centre in terms of compensatory aids that could compensate for the impairment. On the other hand, too much focus on categorization can lead to subtle prejudice toward people with disabilities sometimes labelled disableism (Deal, 2007). Studies have shown that people with permanent impairments do not necessarily wish to be categorized in the employment system (Garsten & Jacobsen, 2013; Jacobsson & Seing, 2013). For example, Garsten & Jacobsen (2013: 846) argue that classificatory processes “reinforce standards of normalcy” and risk disempowering people. However, as this study demonstrates, a lack of focus in job centres does not mean that no classification is performed. In regards to businesses, studies based on fictitious job applications show that employers discriminate against people with disabilities in the process of choosing who to interview (Ameri et al., 2018; Shamshiri-Petersen & Krogh, 2020). However, a categorization in the job centre does not automatically require people to write this in the application.

68The study sheds light on the complex interplay between categories and the formation hereof and we believe that the results call for a research agenda with a greater focus on studying the process of identifying target groups that do not form an explicit political category. Preferably, these studies could be conducted through conversation analysis researching interaction in practice (Sidnell, 2016), from the preparations of the caseworker prior to meeting the unemployed to the following meetings. Despite its contributions, the study also has limitations. Methodologically, the results do not necessarily represent the practices in all Danish job centres. One could also argue that the data is outdated as it was collected in 2017. However, later studies also document a lack of systematization in Danish jobcentres (Amby et al., 2020; Marselisborg Consulting, 2021). None of the studies focus directly on categorization, but the continuation of the overall tendencies support that the same practices with all probabilities also hold true in 2022. Additionally, no changes in regulation have been passed on the subject.

5. Conclusion

69The purpose of this paper is to contribute to the studies of categorization by identifying and studying a process that is underdeveloped in the academic literature by exploring two interrelated questions:

a) To what extent do job centres construct categories that capture client with permanent impairments?

b) How do caseworkers identify whether (and to what extent) their client has permanent impairments that can be considered a disability in the search for new employment?

70On the organizational level of the job centres, neither the survey results nor interviews allow us to conclude any absolutes. However, the analysis does show a lack of focus on disability as a factor in the meetings between the caseworker and the client, which is indicated by the fact that almost half of the respondents were not aware of whether their job centre has a working definition of disability. The job centres may have a definition, but if so, the definition is not present in the minds of the caseworkers and therefore irrelevant in practice. As such, the results indicate the job centres minimally construct categories.

71Although we are not able to generalize our finding concerning how the job centres organize their efforts, the caseworkers’ process of creating categories to identify people with disabilities or permanent impairment turned out to be similar across different organizational settings. As the analysis demonstrates, the caseworkers have difficulties in finding political categories that can encompass the concept of disability or permanent impairment. Instead, they use political categories from adjacent laws aimed at target groups far away from the labour market to describe people who in principle are ready to work on ordinary terms. Hence, the relational character of the term and the sporadic reference in the legislation make it imperative for caseworkers to develop social categories to help identify disabilities in clients as touched upon in the discussion. At a policy level, disability has in recent years become a topic of interest beginning with the inclusion of the target group in the ministerial goals for employment in 2019. The goal is to raise the employment rate for people with disability by 2025 (Regeringen, 2018). As a part of this initiative, job centres can apply to become part of a trial study about the categorization of permanent impairments. An evaluation of this trial showed that both caseworkers and unemployed involved in this trial view the screening and categorization process as positive, as it brings forth an opportunity to discuss how a permanent impairment can impact the person’s job search (Marselisborg Consulting, 2021). Whether the dynamics identified in this study can lead to changes in Danish job centres as a whole will depend on the future balance between national rules and municipal autonomy.

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1 In a Danish context, an unemployment insurance fund is an independent authority from which members can receive unemployment benefits after 12 months of consecutive payments.

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Finn Amby et Lena Kjeldsen, « Categorizing clients with disabilities »Alter, 17-2 | 2023, 63-81.

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Finn Amby et Lena Kjeldsen, « Categorizing clients with disabilities »Alter [En ligne], 17-2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 12 juin 2023, consulté le 30 novembre 2023. URL :

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Finn Amby

associate professor, Research Center for Management organization and Society, VIA University College

Lena Kjeldsen

senior associate professor, Research Center for Management organization and Society, VIA University College

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