December 3 2019 marks the International Day of People with Disabilities. According to the United Nations, disability is not a feature of a person. Instead, people have different types of health impairments: some may need wheelchairs in order to be mobile while others need glasses to read or medication to manage pain or asthma. Unfortunately, depending on your health impairment, there are barriers to aspects of life which most of us take for granted.
It’s widely accepted that employment is not only important for ensuring an individual’s livelihood but also plays an important role in a person’s overall well-being. In fact, for many it’s an essential part of their sense of purpose and belonging, facilitates social inclusion and contributes to their self-esteem.
This is obviously also true for people with disabilities, yet they face incredible challenges not only in finding employment but also in remaining in the workplace itself. When it comes to integrating into the workforce, people with disabilities encounter various barriers that hinder their ability to secure jobs. This is despite key pieces of legislation enacted over a decade ago, such as the Canadian Human Rights Act (1997) and the Employment Equity Act (1986 and revised in 1995).
Sadly, after all these years not much has changed and too many people living with a disability are disadvantaged in trying to enter or remain in the workforce. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability (CSD) revealed that of all the individuals with disabilities between 15 to 64 years of age who are currently not employed or in school, 39% have the potential to be employed. In other words, there are just a little under 645,000 persons that are willing and able to work and yet are not given the opportunity to do so.
This is in good part linked to enduring myths and attitudes towards people with disabilities. Beliefs such as employees with disabilities can’t work autonomously, have a higher rate of absenteeism or require costly accommodations, have been disproven and yet the rate of employment has not risen to reflect this.
However, even for those who have been able to secure gainful employment, the situation can be grim and they may still be faced with more issues that will affect their ability to stay employed. The reality is that persons with disabilities tend to have lower incomes, work in part-time positions and have unmet accommodation needs. Unfortunately, even when employed, the situation for persons with disabilities tends to be more precarious and they are at a higher risk of living in poverty.
Furthermore, in times where organizations are experiencing shortages in workforce and there is a need for skilled and competent workers, persons with disabilities represent a largely untapped resource that employers should not overlook.
In fact, there are proven benefits for employers to having accessible employment practices, as reported by The Conference Board of Canada (CBC) in Business Benefits of Accessible Workplaces. Using different sources, including Statistic Canada, the CBC highlights the most significant benefits which include improved staff retention, better attendance, lower turnover and increased job performance. Furthermore, as they point out in this report, given current and growing shortages in workforce, it only makes sense to take advantage of the skilled and talented individuals that are available and willing to enter the labour market.
How this affects every Canadian
According to the CSD, one in five individuals 15 years and older have one or more disabilities; that is approximately 6.2 million persons. “Among Canadians aged 25 to 64 years with disabilities, over one-quarter reported that at least one of the underlying causes of their disability was work related. This includes workplace conditions as well as accidents or injuries at work”. – Part of the CSD reports
These numbers continue to grow with our aging population. Every Canadian is at risk of becoming a person with a disability, either in the course of employment or due to a work-related event. Simply put, we may all need accessibility services or accommodations at some point, so we all benefit for long term solutions. As the Council of Canadians with Disabilities states:
“Disability is an issue of concern for all Canadians. At some point in our lives, we all will use services built and designed to make Canada more accessible and inclusive.”
On this, the International Day of People with Disabilities, we need to recognize that there is a clear business case for creating more accessible and inclusive workplaces that can attract and retain worker with disabilities.
Just like in the general population, among person with disabilities there are talented, competent, skilled and educated workers that want to contribute and participate in the workforce, but they need the playing field to be leveled by employers in other to have the opportunities they deserve.
Regardless if it is for someone we know or for ourselves, we all share the responsibility to remove barriers that create impediments to living fully productive lives.