Employment for Canadians With Disabilities: The MOST Unattained Dream!

February , 2017
Brief from John Rae

INTRODUCTION:

The Government of Canada has expressed its commitment to eliminating systemic barriers and providing equality of opportunity to all Canadians living with disabilities in Canada.

This is a welcomed commitment. The proposed Act must include tangible measures to improve the lives of Canadians with disabilities, especially in the field of employment. The Act must also include the amendment of a number of existing statutes if it is to deliver on the governments important commitment of greater equality.

BACKGROUND:

My name is John Rae. I am totally blind and live in Toronto.

Over the past 40 years, I have worked for the Ontario Government, held elective offices in Canadas labour movement at the local, provincial and national levels, and have participated actively in numerous community-based organizations dealing with disability and broader human rights issues. When I joined the Ontario Public Service in 1980, I was fortunate in that I was hired into what was then considered a permanent position and I worked for an employer that had a central fund to cover needed workplace accommodation costs, so funds for accommodating a staff member with a disability like me did not come out of the budget of the Program for which I was working.

BARRIERS VERSUS EQUALITY:

A Barrier” is anything that prevents a person with a disability from fully participating in all aspects of society because of his or her disability, including a physical barrier, an architectural barrier, an information or communications barrier, an attitudinal barrier, a technological barrier, a policy or a practice. (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, s.2).

The theme for the International Year of the Disabled Person way back in 1981 was very forward looking for its time: full participation and equality. Despite this theme, thirty-five years later, Canadians with disabilities continue to confront far too many barriers that inhibit or prevent the inclusion of Canadians with disabilities into and full participation in all aspects of daily life in Canada, especially in workplaces across Canada. Today, the disability rights movement continues to strongly urge the elimination of old and pervasive barriers, but too often it must spend critical time protecting gains that have been won or, strange though it may sound in 2017, preventing the introduction of new barriers.

Recommendation:

1. In developing implementation strategies and concrete new policies, procedures and legislation, the Government of Canada must be guided by the provisions contained in Canadas Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and Universal Design principles as a framework for action.

2. The new Act must expand and enhance protections that are already provided for under existing statutes and UN Conventions, and must not diminish in any way legal protection that is already in place.

3. The Act must include concrete policies and programs for the elimination of old systemic barriers and the prevention of new barriers, with time frames and clear measures for rigorous enforcement of the Act.

4. Consumer-run organizations such as the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD), the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC), and the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS), should be considered as rights holder organizations, and must be consulted and accorded their rightful, preeminent role to participate actively in developing and implementing all new legislation, policies, and programs. These organizations are the legitimate voice of the disability community in Canada and their members are prepared to contribute their lived experiences to the decision-making process.

PURPOSE CLAUSE:

The Act must contain a strong Purpose Clause that clearly outlines the objectives of the Act to be to remove existing barriers and prevent the introduction of new barriers. The Acts Purpose must be to achieve full inclusion and participation of persons with various disabilities in all aspects of Canadian society within a specified time frame. The Act must also articulate concrete measures to achieve these goals.

Recommendation:

5. The Act should contain a Purpose Clause, which must set out clear objectives and concrete measures that will ensure all persons with disabilities in Canada can attain equal opportunity to fully and meaningfully participate in all aspects of life in Canada based on their own merit. It must include clear time lines for eliminating old barriers and preventing the introduction of new barriers, with clear time lines and enforcement and accountability measures for achieving the Acts purposes.

BEYOND PRINCIPLES:

The marketplace alone has failed, is failing, and cannot be expected to suddenly become the salvation to the needs of Canadians with disabilities, especially when it comes to employment; thus, further fundamental government involvement, intervention and regulation are required.

Recommendation:

6. The National Act must recognize that the adoption and application of universal design principles is essential to the successful achievement of full inclusion.

7. The National Act must recognize that mere tinkering will not solve the long-standing chronic level of unemployment and under employment that is the lived reality of far too many Canadians with disabilities, and the Acts content must go far beyond mere Principles and must include both Departmental reviews of existing legislation in collaboration with organizations of persons with various disabilities leading to the amendment of various existing statutes, and strong enforcement measures that will remove existing barriers and prevent the introduction of new barriers. To be perfectly clear, the Act should use words like shall, must, or implement whenever a manufacturer, employer, and/or service provider is required to implement provisions of the Act.

SHORT TITLE FOR THE ACT:

Words are important, and the extent of this Acts intent and requirements must be crystal clear in the minds of its readers and among those who will be required to implement its provisions. Thus, the title of the new Act must be inclusive and must both go well beyond and be recognized as going well beyond physical accessibility. Its title should reflect this broad and inclusive intent and Scope.

Recommendation:

8. The Act should be titled the Canada Accessibility and Inclusion Act to ensure that all who read it will realize immediately that its provisions go beyond physical access.

THE ARGUMENTS FOR MEANINGFUL PROGRESS NOW!

Disability Advocates, including myself, have worked for concrete and meaningful progress on many of these issues for many, many years. We have repeatedly outlined the chronic need for progress in a variety of ways including the moral imperative, the legal basis, and the benefits to business. Yet even when these arguments are taken together, too many of us remain on the sidelines out of the mainstream of Canadian society, subsisting in abject poverty. This Act must give greater priority to disability issues, and help bring more persons with various disabilities and our issues into the mainstream of Canadian consciousness and activity, especially when it comes to measures to alleviate the chronic poverty that remains the lived experience of far too many Canadians with disabilities.

We have argued that full inclusion is the right thing to do, especially in a country like Canada that is proud of its human rights record.

We have argued the business benefits of including more people with disabilities. Employing more of us in the companies and boardrooms where decisions are made about what new products are manufactured and what new policies are implemented would help reduce our chronic level of unemployment and reliance on costly adaptations. Employing more of us would also bring needed expertise in house and this should also lead to the production of a wider range of accessible products that are built from the ground up using universal design principles. Canada is a trading nation, and as more and more nations implement their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, there will be more and more opportunities for selling these more accessible products, both within Canada and abroad.

We have outlined the legal argument: Canadas Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and the UN Convention all support barrier-elimination and prevention and bringing Canadians with disabilities into the mainstream of Canadian society.

Recommendation:

9. The Act must focus on meaningful, concrete provisions, designed to bring Canadians with disabilities fully into the mainstream of economic and social life in Canada.

SCOPE:

The Act must be broad in scope, both in terms of the definition of disability and in ensuring broad coverage of the Acts provisions. The Act must be a cross-disability instrument with a broad understanding of the needs and aspirations of Canadians with various disabilities, including issues of intersectionality facing women and girls, racial minorities, and Indigenous peoples.

Recommendation:

10. The Scope of the Act must cover all persons who have any disability, whether they have a physical, mental, sensory, learning and/or intellectual disability, or mental health condition, or are regarded as having or having had any disability. It must cover persons with both visible and invisible disabilities, both long term and episodic, and it must recognize the double or even multiple disadvantages experienced by women and girls, racial minorities, and Indigenous peoples.

11. The Act must cover any and all entities under the jurisdiction of the Government of Canada, including Parliament and its Committees, all Departments, Agencies, Boards and Commissions, and it must also cover all grants and contribution agreements entered into by the Government of Canada and any of its entities.

ONGOING CHRONIC UNEMPLOYMENT AND UNDER-EMPLOYMENT:

A growing number of employers often claim that We actively recruit the best candidate for the position regardless of their disability, yet Canadians with disabilities, including Canadians who are blind, Deaf-blind, or partially sighted have seen their representation in the labour force increase only very slightly over the past two decades, and today, our prospects are not getting any better. We continue to represent a largely untapped resource, and we continue to be plagued by an unacceptable level of systemic barriers and discrimination that result in chronic unemployment and under-employment that should be considered a national disgrace in a developed country such as Canada!

For example, the employment rate for vision-impaired Canadians of working age is just 38 per cent, compared with over 60 per cent for the population at large. In a recent poll by the market research firm Ipsos, 70 per cent of Canadians surveyed said that, if faced with two equally qualified job applicants, they would hire the sighted candidate over the vision-impaired candidate. Ten to 14 per cent of vision-impaired respondents said they believed they had been refused jobs, interviews, or promotions because of their vision disability.

The extent of our plight was recently re-enforced by a new poll, reported on by Michelle McQuigge in her article, Only half of disabled Canadians have a full or part-time job: CIBC poll, (Canadian Press, January 17, 2017),

The survey commissioned by CIBC and conducted by Angus Reid found that only half of respondents living with a disability have a full or part-time job. The unemployed respondents overwhelmingly said they were out of work as a direct result of their disability, with 67 per cent citing it as the reason for their current circumstances.

The survey also found that only 23 per cent of respondents feel comfortable disclosing their disability to a potential employer before the interview process gets underway.

About 19 per cent of respondents said they had no intention of discussing such information at all, with half of them citing fear of discrimination as the reason for their silence.

Most employees start out in an entry level type job. This is to be expected. However, the entry level job is often more physically demanding than higher level positions, and this often prevents an individual from gaining a foot hold, when that worker Could do a higher level, less physically demanding job in the organization.

The unemployment rate facing Canadians with various disabilities is even further exacerbated by a growing trend among todays employers, who are increasingly seeking employees who can perform a wide range of varied tasks, rather than a list of job duties associated with a particular position. This new reality has created new barriers for workers with disabilities, and it flies in the face of the employers legal duty to accommodate workers short of undue hardship, and contributes directly to a vicious circle of disadvantage. Unemployment leads directly to a high rate of poverty among too many Canadians with disabilities, and poverty contributes directly to health problems and isolation from public life.

The legislation must address building design, equipment design, software design, furniture design, the workplace and its facilities such as office space and design, all of these aspects must be designed in a manner that provide ease of access for those who use a wheelchair, but also must offer easy access for those who are blind or vision-impaired. In this regard, a federally regulated facility cannot say that a building has met the requirements of inclusive design if it only has a ramp for wheelchair users; the organization must take into account the rest of the facility such as ensuring that elevators are accessible to persons who are blind and vision-impaired, and that washrooms have tactile displays. To this end The Act must help remove all barriers which inhibit or prevent any group of persons with disabilities from gaining employment in society.

Recommendation:

12. The Government of Canada is a large employer, and it must show the way to other public and private sector employers by becoming a model employer, including new initiatives to reduce the stigma that is still associated with disability, change attitudes, encourage a more positive climate and institute targets and goals that will increase the hiring, retention, and promotion of more Canadians with disabilities.

13. The Canadian Human Rights Commission and Canadian Human Rights Tribunal must do more to reduce and eliminate systemic barriers and direct discrimination that continues to restrict opportunities for Canadians with various disabilities, including Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.

TECHNOLOGY: THE PROMISE DENIED!

About 30 years ago, Canadians with disabilities were promised that advances in technology would set us free and make us equal. For some of us, this promise has become reality. But today, rapid advances in technology are, at best, a double-edged sword, and todays technology is more likely to shut us out than bring us in.

Way back in the late 1980s, it was not so difficult to give us technological equality. However, since then, mainstream technology has advanced more rapidly than the assistive technology persons with disabilities require in order to deal with todays mainstream technology, and this situation is not likely to change on its own. Although the knowledge exists to make technology accessible, it is also very easy to neglect accessibility, especially when the main driver of innovation is, more often than not, the companys bottom line.

Today, some persons with disabilities have achieved increased independence by the operation of some home appliances through a breath command. Vision-impaired persons, through the internet, now have access to more information than most of us ever imagined would occur, and yet a considerable amount of material is still produced only in the pdf format, which too often is unreadable by a screen reader. In addition, the bulk of books are not produced in multiple formats despite the fact that it is easier than ever before in history to produced books in braille. Some manufacturers, like Apple, are producing their products with needed accessibility features built right in, so they can be operated right out of the box without the need for complicated or expensive ad-ons to achieve accessibility. This means that the text-to-speech and screen magnification features are integrated into the core software, instead of being an after-thought, and it leads to a more seamless approach to usability. These companies should be highly commended, and others encouraged to follow their examples.

But technology also has its major downsides. It now makes it easier than ever before for employers to operate with an ever-shrinking workforce. In the past, many Canadian decision-makers talked about full employment as a desirable and achievable goal, but today, this concept is rarely even mentioned among Canadas decision-makers.

In the past, numerous blind persons gained employment as transcriptionists, telephone operators, piano tuners, darkroom technicians, or receptionists jobs that have largely disappeared due to advances in technology which, rather than making them easier to perform, have rendered them largely obsolete. While these jobs were often described as stereotypic occupations, they provided a route to independence, and enabled many average blind persons to make a decent living. They have not been replaced. Today, where are jobs for the average blind person who doesnt want to work in a call centre???

Nowadays, whenever a vacancy is posted, employers are often swamped with applications. This makes it easy for an employer to refuse to hire or even seriously consider an applicant with a disability, even if that person is equally or even better qualified,

When employers upgrade their technology, the business decision is often made knowing the new system they choose to purchase will be unusable by some of their existing employees with disabilities. These employees loyalty is repaid by having their future prospects seriously curtailed or their livelihood threatened altogether. Although they may be relocated to positions in other areas of the organization, the implementation of the new system often has ramifications outside the original department, limiting the jobs these employees with disabilities can now perform and preventing any future hiring of people with disabilities. Once implemented, these inaccessible systems are rarely replaced with accessible ones, further reducing the number of jobs available to people with disabilities.

Recommendation:

14. The Government of Canada should work more with technology developers and manufacturers to ensure that their products build in full accessibility and usability components.

15. The new legislation should make it illegal for a company to implement a new computer system that is not fully accessible.

PROCUREMENT:

The Government of Canada, its Agencies, Boards, and Commissions, along with other large public and private sector organizations, exercise extensive purchasing power which could be used to positively influence the marketplace. This purchasing power should be used to leverage the manufacturing sector to produce an increased range of technology and other products that are designed and manufactured using universal design principles so that they may be used immediately and without adaptations by a larger number of individuals.

The clearest precedent for this is section 508 of the United States Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that makes accessibility a procurement criterion for the United States federal government. More specifically, when Federal agencies develop, procure, maintain or use electronic and information technology, they must ensure that the technology is accessible to employees and members of the public who have disabilities to the extent that it does not pose an “undue burden”. The law establishes a complaint procedure and reporting requirements. Individuals may also sue an agency in court to correct an alleged violation.

For blind Canadians, this is particularly crucial when it comes to the purchase of new technology, which can either enhance our range of opportunities, or create new barriers that will only further shut us out. Encouraging the manufacture of an increased range of products based on universal design principles will not only benefit Canadians with disabilities, but if, as members of a trading nation, Canadian business were to take a leading role in the development and manufacture of goods that are usable by a wider range of individuals, this could open up new markets worldwide for Canadian companies, as more and more nation states implement their obligations under the UN Convention.

Recommendations:

16. All Requests for Proposals issued by the government of Canada, its Agencies, Boards and Commissions, and other major public and private sector organizations, should contain a contract compliance clause regarding full accessibility and usability, and this barrier-free provision must be accorded an integral part of the decision-making process when bids are being assessed.

17. The Government of Canada should actively encourage Canadian businesses to produce more products that are usable by persons with disabilities without the need for adaptations.

THE DISPROPORTIONATELY NEGATIVE IMPACT OF PRECARIOUS WORK:

While the trend towards more precarious and short-term contract work, with few if any benefits, has negative implications for all workers, its continued growth will have particular negative impact on workers with disabilities. Since it can take longer on average for a person with a disability to find a job, any job, it follows that the advance of short term, less secure work will result in lengthy periods of unemployment between jobs for persons with disabilities.

Speaking at a meeting of the federal Liberal Party’s Ontario wing in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Finance Minister Bill Morneau was quoted as saying in part that Canadians should get used to the so-called job churn meaning short-term employment and a number of career changes in a person’s life (Get used to ‘job churn,’ Morneau tells Liberal meeting, CTV News, Oct. 22, 2016). When asked about precarious employment, the Finance Minister told delegates that high employee turnover and short-term contract work will continue in young people’s lives, and that government has to focus on preparing for it.

Recommendation:

18. The Government of Canada must work more with business, labour, and consumer organizations to develop new initiatives to help cushion the disproportionately negative effects of precarious work on the disabled community, a segment of Canadian society that already faces chronic levels of systemic unemployment and under-employment.

MENTORSHIP:

Consumer organizations of Canadians with barious disabilities are best positioned to act as Mentors for their members. I remember when I was much younger and considering my career possibilities, I was interested in becoming a lawyer. Had I known other blind lawyers at the time, I might have gained tips and encouragement that might have led me to the practice of law today, but I didnt have those contacts in those days.

Recommendation:

19. The Government of Canada should assist consumer organizations to implement mentorship programs to assist younger persons with disabilities as they consider what careers to follow.

CALLOUS RESPONSE TO POVERTY REDUCTION REPORTS:

In recent years, there have been a number of studies on reducing poverty conducted by House of Commons and Senate Committees. The Government is required to respond in a timely manner to these reports.

In several instances, the response has been a callous and insensitive response, there is a simple solution to poverty go and get a job!

Many Canadians with disabilities would love to find and retain work, but this dream remains totally elusive. These Reports have never even suggested where all these new jobs might suddenly appear or where they are to be found. I have asked at a growing number of meetings, where are all of these jobs that persons with disabilities are suddenly supposed to find? And I ask again: where are all of these jobs!Where is the employment genie?

THE SELF EMPLOYMENT OPTION:

Faced with ongoing rejection from employers, a growing number of persons with disabilities are considering starting their own business as an option to ongoing unemployment. However, self employment isnt for everyone. It requires a person with an idea that isnt currently being adequately met in the marketplace, and the right temperment to work hard to make it happen. Too often, persons with disabilities are prevented from pursuing self employment, due to difficulties in securing necessary start up capital from financial institutions.

Recommendation:

20. The Government of Canada should create special funds to assist Canadians with disabilities to overcome the barrier of acquiring needed start up funds to pursue a self employment opportunity.

SUMMER EMPLOYMENT:

It is common for non-disabled individuals to gain employment experience and job references through after work or summer employment. These opportunities are not nearly so available to young persons with disabilities. Thus, it is easy to finish post-secondary education with a degree and little job experience.

Recommendation:

21. Governments must do more to encourage young persons with disabilities to pursue summer employment, and must do more to encourage the hiring of students with disabilities. 20

ENFORCEMENT:

As we have learned so painfully in Ontario, any Act is only as effective as its Enforcement measures and the governments will to use those provisions vigorously.

Recommendation:

22. The Act must contain strong enforcement measures with time frames for achieving meaningful progress in the lives of Canadians with disabilities, and the Government of Canada must be prepared to vigorously enforce these provisions.

THE WAY FORWARD:

As discussed above, I believe I have outlined how past and current practices have failed miserably to assist the bulk of Canadians with disabilities to enter and remain in Canadas workforce in numbers that more closely mirror our representation in the population and, thus, there is no reason to believe that current practices will suddenly become the answer to existing and new barriers. I have also discussed how advances in technology are more of a barrier than help when it comes to the area of employment.

To have any chance of success, mere tinkering is simply not enough! Bold new approaches and initiatives are required immediately. These should include the following.

Recommendations:

23. The Prime Minister, in conjunction with the Ministers of Finance, Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, Families, Children and Social Development, Sport and Persons with Disabilities, and the President of the Treasury Board should bring together leaders from business, labour and organizations of persons with disabilities to discuss and attempt to forge new commitments to the employment of persons with disabilities.

24. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues should work with their Provincial and Territorial counterparts and encourage the convening of similar meetings at the provincial and territorial levels.

25. The Government of Canada should take immediate steps to make the federal public service a model employer and thereby become an example to all other public and private sector employers across Canada.

26. The Government of Canada must set increased targets for the hiring, retention and promotion of persons with disabilities at all levels throughout the organization.

27. Performance pay for all senior executives should be tied to the senior manager’s ability to eliminate barriers within the workplace and increase the representation of persons with disabilities in their organizations.

28. The federal governments intranet and payroll systems must be retrofitted to make them usable independently by employees who are blind, Deaf-blind or partially sighted.

29. The Government of Canada must develop new initiatives to try to improve attitudes to persons with disabilities, especially among employers.

30. The Government of Canada should include accessibility and universal design requirements into all future requests for proposals, and make these criteria fundamental aspects in the decision-making process before contracts for the purchase of new technology and other goods and services are awarded.

31. The Government of Canada, in conjunction with organizations of persons with disabilities, should develop and implement new programs to help cushion the disproportionate effects of the new and developing realities of precarious employment.

32. The Federal Employment Equity Act and Federal Contractors Program must be amended and strengthened to require greater progress towards a more representative workforce in Canada.

33. Human rights commissions, all of which receive the highest percentage of complaints from persons with disabilities, particularly in the area of employment, must devote more of their time and resources to dealing more vigorously with the systemic discrimination facing workers with various disabilities, including Canadians who are blind, Deaf-blind and partially sighted.

CONCLUSION:

In this Brief, I have discussed very briefly some of the many, many factors and barriers that are inhibiting and preventing Canadians with disabilities who are attempting to enter and remain in the workforce. I have made the case that mere tinkering by the government of Canada, its provincial and territorial counterparts and other public and private sector employers will not respond successfully to the extent of these problems. I have also listed a number of recommendations which could help some more Canadians with disabilities to realize that elusive dream of gaining meaningful employment.

However, given the extent of the barriers , and the changing nature of the world of work, taken together, and added to with additional provisions, I am not convinced that even this prescription will come close to bringing the bulk of Canadians with disabilities into Canadas workplaces.

Thus, with great sadness, I must make one final recommendation

That the disabled community refocus its work and make its top priority the Poverty Reduction Strategy process that was recently announced by the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, The Honourable Jean-Yves Duclos, and give particular attention to developing a Guaranteed Annual Income Program for Canadians with disabilities, a Program that will provide an adequate standard of living for a segment of Canadians who are largely not wanted nor adequately accommodated to take our place in the work forces of our country, something we would prefer to do.

Brief To:

Consultation Accessibility Legislation
c/o Office for Disability Issues
Employment and Social Development Canada
105, rue Hôtel de Ville, 1st floor, Bag 62
Gatineau, QC K1A 0J9

Brief From:

John Rae
#304 192 Jarvis Street
Toronto, ON M5B 2J9
E-mail: thepenguin@rogers.com