While Canada has made great strides in equal opportunity employment, companies might still be inadvertently discriminating against disabled individuals.

Many firms continue to engage in practices that shut out individuals with disabilities, often right from the application process, according to experts. And, observers note, disabled people’s marginalization in the labour market is compounded by the fact that Canada’s public system for disability benefits is essentially a confusing patchwork of programs.

“If we think about labour force productivity, it’s contingent upon being able to access work,” said Emile Tompa, a labour and health economist at the Institute for Work & Health, speaking at a recent webinar on disability.

And most disabled Canadians do want to access the labour market, said in an interview Diana McCauley, manager of employment services at Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, a non-profit organization.

“The people that come into our service, it’s typically someone who’s receiving [government] income support. And they want to get off those supports—they want to be able to get a job,” McCauley explained.

But as many as 54% of the country’s working-age disabled population—about 3.8 million individuals—are unemployed, according to the Canadian Survey on Disability released by Statistics Canada. Some see this as a conservative estimate, however, because it doesn’t capture the number of those who have given up on their job search. In comparison, the country’s general unemployment rate is 6.9%.

Canada’s small employers, for example, have been slow to hire disabled people. A recent survey by BMO Financial Group reveals that in 2013, only three in 10 small business owners recruited people with disabilities, the same as the previous year.

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One reason for the high unemployment rate among people with disabilities are employer practices which essentially exclude them from the workforce—and many of these practices happen as early as the application process, experts note.

For example, a number of companies insist on accepting only online applications. But people with a vision disability may not have the right software to complete the online process, said McCauley.

Also, she added, some employers phrase vacancy announcements in a manner that makes disabled people feel unwelcome. That includes failure to insert statements that the company is an equal opportunity employer as well as the use of phrases such as “must be able to drive,” McCauley said. But often, a person can still do a job by taking public transportation instead of driving, she explained.

The interview process can also be a barrier for disabled individuals. Phone screening, for instance, is an issue for people with conditions such as cerebral palsy. “You have to be more patient to hear them out,” McCauley explained, adding, however, that recruiters often don’t want to bother.

“And we have people who have skills and can do the job, but are not good at interviewing,” she added.

Another obstacle for people with disabilities is that some companies can be inflexible about job requirements, refusing to consider candidates who don’t meet all of them, McCauley said.

Yet another barrier are the assumptions that many employers have about the skills of disabled people, their absence rates and the insurance costs they would pay if they hire those individuals. But many of these assumptions are erroneous—and often, the accommodations an employer has to make are not onerous or costly at all, said Ellen MacEachen, a scientist at the Institute for Work & Health, who also spoke at the webinar.

Instead, companies should focus on creating an “accepting environment,” explained MacEachen. That involves educating not only managers but also co-workers about the experience of disability, she added, explaining that a disabled individual often spends more time with co-workers rather than a manager.

Observers point out that disabled people actually bring a lot of positive traits to the table. Some of the main ones are loyalty and diligence, since they’re willing to go the extra mile in order to keep their jobs, given that finding work is hard for them, McCauley explained.

Patchwork of policies

Another major reason why Canada’s disabled community is largely on the margins of the labour market is the country’s incoherent set of disability support programs, according to experts. Unlike some other advanced nations, Canada has no uniform, national disability policy. What it has is a number of policies that vary across provinces and territories.

“In fact, there is a patchwork of legislation, regulations, programs, providers and entitlements that requires considerable probing to reveal, and considerable patience to understand,” according to a 2013 Queen’s University academic paper called A Review of Disability Policy in Canada. “Disability policy in Canada has been described as conflicting, fragmented, incoherent, not user-friendly, a ‘hit-or-miss’ affair.”

Currently, Canada has seven programs that offer benefits to disabled individuals. Examples of federal programs include the Canada Pension Plan—which in addition to retirement income also provides income in the event of disability—and the Registered Disability Savings Plan, a long-term savings program delivered by the Canada Revenue Agency. The provinces also offer disability benefits. Provincial workers’ compensation agencies administer benefits, too.

All of these seven programs operate separately from each other, without any coordination, Tompa said. Each has a different definition of disability, eligibility criteria and generosity of benefits. Some are for work-related injuries; others are not.

As a result, two people with the exact same injury can end up being covered by different programs that offer different levels of support. A 2010 briefing by the Institute for Work & Health, A patchwork quilt: Income security for Canadians with disabilities, illustrates the point: “Consider the following scenario. On a weekday morning, three separate motor vehicle accidents result in identical spinal cord injuries to three male drivers. Each driver is permanently disabled as a result of these injuries.

“One of the men is a self-employed construction worker driving to his worksite; the second is an insurance company manager with 10 years of employment tenure; the third is a commercial truck driver employed by a transportation company.”

“As the third driver had an injury arising in the course of employment, he would be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits. The second driver would very likely have an employment-based long-term disability plan. The first driver would not be eligible for workers’ compensation, and as a self-employed construction worker, may not have a long-term disability plan.”

Navigating this kind of complex system often causes people to fall through the cracks, according to observers.

“One of the things we’re seeing is people going in circles because of the patchwork of policies,” said MacEachen. So, “someone who had a problem that wasn’t that complicated can find themselves in a spiraling process,” she said, adding that people often end up losing their jobs in the process.

Apart from being impenetrable and incoherent, Canada’s policies are also based on a narrow view of disability, MacEachen said. “The policy is often focused very strongly on functional ability, which is a very limiting way to understand these issues,” she explained, adding that understanding the social component of disability is also key. This is where employers can play a role, she said.

“A lot of the programs are based on training the individual to have more skills,” she said. “[But] we may [also] need programs to encourage employers to take a chance on people and actually hire them, too.”

But in order to better integrate disabled individuals in the workforce, it’s also important establish links between Canada’s disability programs, rather than bringing them into one system, said Tompa.

“The timing is right to bring [these programs] together—they’re starting to look at each other anyway,” MacEachen said.

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Another way to improve employment that is rarely mentioned is strengthening human rights laws.

Right now it is difficult to take a case through the process, and even more difficult to find any legal help.

If persons with disabilities were eligible for legal aid, and if awards became punitive we’d see change sooner.

It’s cheaper to discriminate than to make any effort.

Wednesday, December 11 at 3:02 pm | Reply


One of the pieces to this story that is rarely, if ever mentioned is the need for most career positions to “work your way up” from a bottom level. While I understand that society expects young people to pay their dues, and not expect to enter into managerial jobs right out of college, what if you are perfectly employable but cannot engage in those bottom level, “internship” type jobs. My husband has a masters degree in human rights law, but has been stuck for the last two years in a very part time, low paid position that has no possibility for upward mobility. The reason is that other people with similar degrees are taking internships and clerical positions in companies or non-profits where they want to work, and then working their way up from there. My husband has quadriplegic cerebral pasly. He is brilliant and personable. He can work excellently at the computer, has great communication skills and inter-personal skills. He cannot, however, fetch coffee, file paperwork or run errands. Because of this, he has been unable to enter into any type of career path, and is continuously passed over for jobs, either because he is applying to jobs that are above the entry level, thus he is not seen as qualified, or he is applying to entry level positions which he does not have the physical capacity to do (he interviewed for a door knocking job that might have had some upward mobility, but since he cannot climb stairs, or knock on a door, that wasn’t going to work). How is a person like him ever going to be able to use his skills, when it seems as though all jobs that would use those skills require at least of few years of “paying you dues” as coffee boy or errand woman.

Friday, December 13 at 10:28 pm | Reply

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