Last Updated: Friday, August 7, 2009 | 2:10 PM ET
Ralph Waine first stuck his nose under the hood of a car at the age of five.
But even though the 43-year-old mechanic has since accumulated years of experience fixing cars and transport trucks, finding a job in the field has caused him nothing but frustration.
He says it comes down to one reason: “It’s just I can’t hear, and that’s why they don’t want to offer me that chance.”
Difficulty finding employment has recently been amplified for the deaf and others with disabilities as Canada suffers from an economic downturn, shedding tens of thousands of jobs .
In the resulting highly competitive job market, many with disabilities feel like they just don’t stand a chance.
People with disabilities face an unemployment rate of 56 per cent, says Laurie Beachell, national co-ordinator for Council of Canadians with Disabilities. That compares with an overall rate for Canadians in the six per cent range for many years before jumping to around eight per cent recently.
Beachell says even well-educated folks who have a disability are not finding jobs.
“I’ve sent out so many resumes,” says Waine, speaking through an American Sign Language interpreter. “You know, I send out hundreds of resumes at a time and don’t get a response.”
Excuse to Discriminate
Some workers with disabilities and advocates feel like the current economic climate has become an excuse for employers to discriminate against them. Ralph Waine, 43, is an experienced mechanic who has been looking for work for years. He says employers hesitate to hire him because he’s deaf.
“My sense of it is that when times are tough, people with disabilities who need accommodation may be the first to go especially if that accommodation is costly. I think that’s the biggest concern that we have,” says Ivana Petricone, executive director of the Toronto-based ARCH Disability Law Centre.
Employers are legally required to accommodate those with disabilities unless it causes “undue hardship,” such as safety issues for employees or costs so high a business can’t survive.
“While we have these laws in place, it doesn’t always play out so perfectly,” says Petricone.
More than 50 per cent of the calls and complaints logged at the centre have been about employment and work accommodation issues, says Petricone.
But employment, she hastens to add, is more than just a job for her clients — it’s a way to feel like a contributor to society, helps keeps them above the poverty line and prevents them from feeling isolated.
Auto-Reliant Areas Hardest Hit
With automotive and manufacturing sectors taking a major hit during recent tough times, the Canadian Hearing Society says it too is witnessing a drastic rise in caseloads, particularly in the automotive-reliant parts of Ontario in the southwest and Durham Region.
The Disability Rights Fight
When the first drafts of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms were released in 1980, the document proposed protection against discrimination on the basis of sex, race and religion. There was no mention of disability.
The government feared rights for those with disabilities could spark spiralling costs due to building upgrades and that the word was too difficult to define.
Disability advocates waged a months-long campaign. They argued religion required no such definition and reassured the government that no one immediately expected ramps and elevators in every building.
Eventually, the lobbying paid off. In January 1981, during a joint parliamentary committee hearing on the topic, then justice minister Jean Chretien made the surprise announcement that the government had changed its position.
Disability was added to Section 15 of the Charter, forever entrenching their rights.
The society says there’s been a 40 per cent rise in its employment caseload over the past three months in Durham, a region east of Toronto and home to a once-booming auto industry.
Gordon Ryall, CHS provincial manager for employment and training in Ontario, says he’s helped hundreds of people, many of them in factory jobs.
“Everyone’s looking for work, which means it’s more difficult for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, because now … they are competing with others who are not disabled for the same position,” says Ryall, speaking through a sign language interpreter.
“It’s not a fair game, obviously.”
Though statistics on unemployment among the deaf and hard of hearing are difficult to come by, the society estimates at least one-quarter to one-third are jobless.
Frank Cuzzolino, 53, who is deaf, has been out of work for the past four years. Despite having office skills and advanced computer training, the Toronto man has been unable to secure work in his field and is now expanding his search to include cleaning, maintenance work and grass cutting.
“For us, it’s the same struggle. I’ve always been frustrated with the fact that I haven’t been offered a chance, and now it’s even more so frustrating .… It’s definitely worse because of the economic downturn,” Cuzzolino says through a sign language interpreter.
Ryall at the Canadian Hearing Society says he continues to be optimistic, saying this economic downturn too shall pass.
Gordon Ryall of the Canadian Hearing Society says southwestern Ontario has suffered the largest drop in employment for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Their group is trying to get more creative by helping clients look for work in sectors other than manufacturing, such as pharmacy companies, shipping and receiving, and high-tech packaging firms.
Advocacy groups, however, say the government needs to address the troubles facing disabled workers by reminding employers of their obligations under the law.
For Cuzzolino, however, there’s only one thing for him to do.
“It’s been very frustrating but I will never give up. I will continue looking for a position. I will continue looking and try to find something.”