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From: Disability Impact on Career Employment


by Denise Feltham

The need to work is a basic human need that stems not only from economic survival but from the sense of purpose derived from being a productive and contributing member of society. We currently live in an ablest society that focuses on perfection in appearance and performance. As such, people with disabilities often experience a devaluing of the qualities and skills they have to offer.

Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. They can be visible or invisible. They can be present at birth or acquired in later life. Disabilities can stem from chronic diseases or conditions (arthritis, diabetes); sensory impairments (vision or hearing loss); trauma (paraplegia, acquired brain injury); learning disabilities (dyslexia, dyscalculia); developmental (Down's Syndorome, autism); or psychiatric disorders (anxiety disorder, depression, schizophrenia). 

Ten percent of working aged adults between the ages of 15 and 64 acquire a disability. The rate of unemployment for this population is three times higher than that for the able bodied population. Adults with disabilities are only half as likely as able bodied workers to remain employed for at least a year, and Aboriginal adults with disabilities have an even higher rate of unemployment. Age, gender, severity of disability and level of education are key determinants of employment success for people with disabilities. Younger male adults are more successful than older female adults, and more highly educated, less severely disabled adults are more successful than lower educated, more severely disabled adults at securing employment.

The value ascribed to work performed by people with disabilities is reflected in their salaries, which are lower than those earned by their abled bodied peers, and lower for females in both groups. 

Many people with disabilities require workplace accommodations (job coaches, sign language interpreters, assistive devices, flexible work hours) in order to perform satisfactorily on the job. Lack of accommodations, lack of practical work experience and employer attitudes perpetuate unemployment for people with disabilities. 

One reason for this situation lies in Section 16(1) of the Ontario Human Rights Code, which states that "a handicapped person's right to non-discrimination is not violated if they are denied a job because their handicap prevents them from performing the essential duties of the job." This clause is often used as a loophole to avoid hiring people with disabilities. Recently, government sponsored employment programs shifted from a train and place to a place and train approach, reducing the availability of pre-employment supports such as psychovocational assessments and job trials, and requiring job seekers to be competitively employable.

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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