Campbell: Access to Employment Critical Step for People With Disabilities

Dec. 3 is United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The theme this year is “The Future is Accessible.” It’s a future all of us in the disability sector envision, especially in terms of employment for people who have a disability.

An idealistic vision? I don’t think so. Here’s the thing, though: the future starts now. We need to do more now about employment accessibility.

This demands asking two essential questions: How do we make the future more accessible? And what does accessibility mean, especially when it comes to employment?

The authors of a 2015 University of Guelph study clearly answer that first question. “We need to start looking at what we’re doing to prepare students for future employment.” They note accessibility to meaningful employment for graduates “mostly depends on what program you choose.”

In Canada, 50 per cent of people who have one or more disabilities have a university degree. Employment outcomes for them? The same as someone with a high-school diploma.

Findings of the Guelph study and a 2012 University of Waterloo study were similar. Post-secondary grads who have a disability are more likely to be working part-time jobs rather than full time in their chosen career field.

Too often these new and highly educated grads end up in minimum-wage, entry level jobs. They should have access to a labour market that values and seeks out their skills, education and abilities. It’s not happening enough.

The future will be accessible when all businesses intentionally hire with diversity and inclusion (D&I) in mind and include disability in the D&I conversation. There has been a mind shift over the past decade. But still too often, disability is left out of the dialogue.

Full employment accessibility will happen when everyone, everywhere looks at disability from the “human rights model” perspective in other words, when society looks at the person first, their skills and abilities, the contribution they want to make.

This is both a human rights issue and a business issue. There are business benefits in hiring qualified candidates from the disability talent pool. Organizations with inclusive cultures are “eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes,” state Juliet Bourke and Bernadette Dillon in a 2018 Deloitte Review article.

But this all needs to happen more, globally. Because the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities recognizes in Article 27 that it’s the basic human right of people who have a disability to be treated equally “in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible.”

National reports on the employment of people who have a disability in European countries provide evidence of widespread initiatives in policy and legislation in recent years. These include, for example, assistance in adaptation of the workplace, rights to flexible working, personal assistance at work and support for self-employment.

But more needs doing. There is still a need for more knowledge and more co-ordination with government policies and programs everywhere.

We sorely need better labour market information and investment in data. All job seekers must have access to up-to-date statistics on in-demand sectors, and available jobs and training opportunities. Right now, most disability employment statistics and research are five, 10 and even 15 or 20 years old. Not acceptable. Not workable. Not for creating a future that’s accessible.

We’ve got a long way to go, but we are moving the needle. Employment examples prove it. This was validated for us at the Ontario Disability Employment Network when we saw members’ success stories published in regional media during our National Disability Employment Awareness Month campaign in October.

We must create a future demanding that people aren’t excluded because of disability, that everyone in the workplace identify barriers wherever they see them and that they work to overcome those barriers. Working toward that accessible future is everyone’s responsibility now.

Jeannette Campbell is the CEO of the Ontario Disability Employment Network

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