Monday, 4 May 2015

Disability and the employment challenge

By: Chris Viola

Let’s not sugar coat it: almost everybody has some kind of employment struggle within their lifetime. However, gaining employment when you have a disability can turn this medium sized cliff into Mount Everest. Some people with disabilities are completely unable to work, but those who can work, face enormous barriers in order to gain employment. It is especially difficult to land jobs that actually pay the bills. There are fail-safes designed around this, but many of them simply will never work as intended, especially when it comes down to disabilities. Allow me to explain.

 In Canada, we have what is called the “Employment Equity Act”, which works in tandem with the “Canadian Human Rights Act”. These two acts state that someone can’t be treated unfairly or discriminated against due to their disability. Employers also have to be mindful not to discriminate against people for their race, religion, sex or sexual orientation. It’s a blanket policy that works for most groups, but there is a double edged sword for people with disabilities.  The policies, however well meaning, backfire on people with disabilities and most people don’t even realize it.

 One of the statements in the act is that an employer must ‘provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities’ and has several lines that boil down to saying that despite one’s disability, in order to get hired they still have to be able to physically do the job. For example, a visually impaired person would not be able to become a chauffeur. This seems fair for safety and practical reasons, but the ‘provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities’ part often causes complications that go against the disabled job candidates who are physically able to do the job.

 For the sake of an example, let’s say the interviewer is down to two job candidates, both with likable personalities and equal qualifications, one with a disability and one without. The person without a disability requires no accommodation. However the one with the disability, might need a wheelchair ramp, or a special computer screen, for example. Many companies would rather hire the candidate who won’t cause them to have to make and pay for changes in their work space. Likewise, if the person’s disability required they work in a noise free space, then having to give the employee a separate office with a solid door, might not be so appealing. If the person with the disability doesn’t say they need accommodations in their interview and then springs it on their employer last minute, they risk causing conflict with their employer.

Even though there is legislation to provide equal opportunities for employees with disabilities, the fact remains that having a disability continues to be a barrier to employment. Statistics Canada recently published a study on employment among people with disabilities (both physical and intellectual). In the study, 33% of 25-34 year olds with a severe disability reported being refused a job because of their condition.

Some people with disabilities do find employment, but the unemployment rates are considerably higher among the disabled. Those who graduate from university, do tend to do better than those who don’t but they also tend to be excluded from higher positions. I try to remain positive about my employment prospects just the same. I expect I will experience a great feeling of accomplishment when I finally tear down those barriers and succeed in finding gainful employment.



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