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A LONG, WINDING ROAD: EMPLOYMENT FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES

From: ​Online Abilities

A LONG, WINDING ROAD:

EMPLOYMENT FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES

By Denise Feltham

Food, shelter, clothing and the opportunity to be a productive member of society are basic human needs. In the hunting and gathering and agrarian societies, people fished, gathered, hunted and farmed to obtain what they needed to survive. As such, they had access to the means of production. In the industrial society, the means of production was controlled by manufacturers, and people depended on wages by employers for survival. When the industrial age gave way to the information technology age, more jobs were lost as industries shut down and new skills were required. 

The situation is even more challenging for people with disabilities, who experience more difficulty than their able bodied peers in finding and keeping a job. In 2006, Statistics Canada conducted a Participation and Activity Limitation Survey, which revealed that 15.5% of Ontarians have a disability. At the time of the survey, 41% were employed and 54% were unemployed or not actively looking for work. They earned an average of $22,543; however, 46% earned less than $15,000. Eighty-four percent of women and 65% of men earned less than $30,000. Only 9% earned over $50,000. With respect to education as a determinant of employment, 24% completed high school; 11% obtained a trades certificate or diploma; 17% completed college; and 11% completed university.

The research project Neglected or Hidden, conducted by the Canadian Abilities Foundation, revealed that adults with disabilities are only half as likely as able bodied workers to remain employed for at least a year. Many of them require workplace accommodations in order to perform satisfactorily on the job. Lack of practical work experience, employer attitudes and a lack of accommodations and flexible working conditions were identified as the primary factors contributing to their unemployment. A strong need was identified for specialized employment counselling services to meet the needs of people with disabilities, particularly in the area of job development.

In November, 2005, the federal and provincial governments realized that Part II of the Employment Insurance Act, by giving priority to recently laid-off workers, did not address the current labour market challenges created by plant closures and layoffs due to restructuring, downsizing and relocation. As a result, they entered into the Canada-Ontario Labour Market Partnership Agreement. Their vision was to create a skilled, productive and inclusive workforce by developing a one-stop training and employment services system that is results-based, efficient, accountable and responsible.

The federal and provincial governments planned a number of strategies to achieve this goal. These included:

In the spirit of a results-based, efficient system, the ODSP Employment Supports Program delivered by the Ministry of Community and Social Services changed its strategy from a train and place to a place and train approach. This move has led to reduced pre-employment services such as psycho-vocational assessments, life skills training and job trials, and more selective screening of participants in favour of those deemed most likely to succeed. As a result, people with disabilities are at higher risk of falling through the cracks in the system. They become dependent on income support programs because of the financial instability of part time and contract work, as well as differences in level of functioning caused by the disability.

There are many career counselling and employment services provided by government and non-profit agencies which help people with disabilities find employment. The various players involved in the employment services system have different goals and challenges. The primary needs for the job seeker or student with a disability is to identify a career or find a job in which they can maximize their strengths and work around their disability by accessing appropriate accommodations. Employment counsellors are responsible for meeting agency quotas of job placements for their clients. Career counselors have the dual role of facilitating their students’ success while maintaining the reputation of the college or university by ensuring that their students choose a realistic career. An equal opportunity employer must balance the successful operation of the business with providing a positive work environment and meeting the accommodation needs of employees with disabilities. However, a gap is created between vocational assessment and job placement when the impact of a person’s disability on their career options and work performance is not taken into account, and when the significance of necessary workplace accommodations is not understood. Identifying jobs that will capitalize on the individual’s strengths and subdue the effects of disability on task performance is critical to workplace success. Only then can one begin to overcome the sense of failure that develops from a history of job loss. 

As a person with a disability, I chose the road less travelled and went into self employment after being unsuccessful in the regular workforce, despite a Bachelor of Social Work Degree and a Career and Work Counsellor Diploma. In a sense, self employment is the ultimate accommodation, and there are several programs available to assist individuals with various barriers to employment become entrepreneurs. However, depending on the point of view, self-employment programs can be interpreted as exclusionary because it has been determined that the individual would not be able to succeed in regular employment. Or it can be interpreted as the ultimate act of confidence in the individual’s unique talent, intelligence and resourcefulness to transform a viable business idea into a reality. I decided to adopt the later point of view, and developed D.I.C.E. Assessment and Employment Counselling Services. D.I.C.E. (Disability Impact on Career/Employment) is a self assessment tool that provides a comprehensive profile of the person’s abilities and challenges, thereby enabling them to choose a more suitable career that will maximize their strengths, and explores adaptations required for workplace success. I also provide assistance with resumes and cover letters. As a certified Life Skills Coach, I am also in the process of developing a life skills workshop on issues related to disability in the workplace. 

Self employment is great for entrepreneurs who have unique products or services to offer. Yet for many people with disabilities, this accommodation is not feasible. For diversity to truly exist in the workplace, a different mindset by employers is needed. They must ask themselves, "What can this applicant do?" rather than "How fast can this applicant do it?" They must ask themselves, "What is the economic cost of not hiring this applicant?" rather than "What shortfalls in projected revenue will this applicant cost me?" Only then can people with disabilities meet their needs for financial security, sense of purpose and sense of belonging that comes from being productive participants in society.

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