By Denise Leduc
Rankandfile.ca’s Prairies correspondent
Workers with disabilities face many challenges in Canada’s labour market, including marginalization and exclusion. Only about 25% of individuals with intellectual disabilities are able to find employment. Even at work this often-overlooked segment of the workforce is forced to confront a number of obstacles.
Poverty, discrimination, and abuse
Sheila Anderson, Director of Employment Initiatives with the Saskatchewan Association for Community Living is trying to change this. As Anderson remarked in an interview, “As a society there are still a lot of stereotypes, myths and discrimination around individuals with disabilities.” She suggests focusing on the individual first. “Disability is not a bad word,” she says. “However, nobody likes to be labelled and discriminated against.” Instead, she suggests we focus on the person and their abilities. Disabilities are just one part of who a person is, and how they define themselves.
In Canada there are approximately 500,000 individuals that are of working age with intellectual disabilities or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). According to the Saskatchewan Disability Strategy, individuals with disabilities experience more poverty, abuse, and discrimination than those without disabilities. People with disabilities can also experience poorer health and can have less access to transportation, affordable and accessible housing, and recreation. Furthermore, individuals with disabilities still face barriers such as inaccessible buildings in the community or having their service dogs denied entry to various places as they go about their day. Finally, participation levels in education, training, and employment are lower for individuals with disabilities.
Ready, Willing, and Able
In twenty communities across the country, the Canadian Association for Community Living and the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder Alliance are involved in a multi-year pilot-program called, “Ready, Willing, and Able.” The goal of this project is to increase employment opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities or ASD by engaging employers and the general public on the business case for hiring workers that have disabilities.
The autism spectrum is vast and can include individuals who need much care and support to individuals who are pursuing postgraduate studies. However, people with autism can struggle in areas of communication which can affect their interviewing skills. These individuals, Anderson asserts, can do the work if given a chance, even if they cannot effectively promote their skills or abilities during job interviews.
In her work on the “Ready, Willing and Able” project, Sheila Anderson is working to create awareness that individuals with disabilities can be productive and are capable of accomplishing tasks just like anyone else. In some cases workers with disabilities might need a little extra help, but accommodations are reasonable and inexpensive. Most workers with disabilities, of course, require no workplace accommodation.
In preparing the business case for hiring workers with disabilities the Canadian Association for Community Living found that workers with disabilities miss less work and have less sick time than their counterparts without disabilities. They also found workers with disabilities rate average or better in workplace safety than their co-workers without disabilities.
Across the country, the average employment turnover rate is about 49%, whereas it is estimated the turnover rate for individuals with intellectual disabilities or ASD is only 7%. Once given the opportunity this demographic stays on the job for years and even decades. Sheila Anderson’s job is to help match workers with disabilities to the right jobs. The “Ready, Willing and Able” program assists employers in gaining the confidence and capacity to make the arrangement work. For starters, employers are educated about the disability and any support system that may be required. Sometimes job coaches are put in place to help the worker learn the job during the training period. Once the employee acquires the confidence and ability to perform their job, the coach’s role subsides.
The Association for Community Living also has Education to Employment Transition Facilitators who aid with the integration process. This position helps students with disabilities find work and gain the experience they need to succeed in the labour market as adults.
Time and patience
One year into the project, the “Ready, Willing and Able” initiative is still facing some resistance. Changing the mindsets and opinions people have about individuals with disabilities takes time and patience. This, according to Anderson, is the biggest challenge. There is still a belief amongst some employers and the general public that people with disabilities cannot do the work and are not able to hold down jobs. Yet matching the right worker with the right job, as well as proper training and the proper supports in place, help with long-term success. And, there are success stories. Anderson says her greatest job satisfaction comes when an employer will call her up and ask, “Do you have four more of these guys?” or when an individual with disabilities will tell her, “I just love going to work. I love my job. I don’t need to be on assistance anymore.”
Anderson wants people to know that individuals with disabilities are just like your typical employee. As she contends, “When we focus on how we are similar instead of how we are different, we will move forward as a society, and be stronger for it.” She also wants the public to talk about the promotion of citizenship for individuals with disabilities, their value and inclusion-whether in the community, at play, and at work. With the focus for individuals with disabilities working for real pay for real work in the community, “Ready, Willing and Able” is one project helping to ensure that a person with a disability gets opportunities to be included in the workforce and make a fair wage for the work they do.
When we think about the things we want in our own lives – independence, a sense of purpose, an opportunity to contribute to our communities, being paid fairly for the work we do – these are aspirations shared by people with or without disabilities. However, the real difference is many people with disabilities are still being excluded from opportunities to have these things that we all want. “We all have the same goal,” Anderson says, “Increased quality of life for all people with disabilities.”