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A New Economic Strategy for Canadians with Disabilities

Date: 
Sunday, October 1, 2006

Notes and Recommendations for Presentation to:
The Standing Committee on Human Resources,
Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities

Toronto, October 27, 2006

Submitted By:

Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians / L'Alliance pour l'Égalité des Personnes Aveugles du Canada

BACKGROUND TO THE AEBC

The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians / L'Alliance pour l'Égalité des Personnes Aveugles du Canada (AEBC), appreciates the opportunity to participate in the cross-Canada hearings of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.

Founded in 1992, the AEBC is a national, not-for-profit consumer organization "of" individuals who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, who have come together to work collaboratively to improve our overall quality of life and to achieve the promise of the International Year of the Disabled Person 1981 ... "full participation and equality."

INTRODUCTION

Over the past two decades, a wide range of employment related and other programs for persons with disabilities have been carried on by various levels of government, private philanthropic associations and consumer organizations. While some individuals have benefited from these initiatives, taken together, statistics tell us the past efforts represent a failure--the unemployment rate for persons with various disabilities remains a national disgrace in a country as affluent as Canada.

This stems in part from the nature of many of these initiatives which have often focused only on employment. To make employment programs more effective, the Government of Canada must take the lead in forging a new National Economic Strategy, based on a more holistic approach, and the tenets of full inclusion and universal design. This Strategy must also address such areas as public transportation, training, access to information, safe and affordable housing, mobility training, and most importantly the historic levels of isolation, unemployment, under-employment, and poverty which remain the reality for so many Canadians with disabilities.

WHAT STATISTICS TELL US!

A. The 2001 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS) reported:

Employment rate

51.2% of Canadians with disabilities were employed, (versus 82.3% of those without disabilities)

Household income

$52,835 for persons with disabilities, (versus $72,951 for those without disabilities)

B. An Unequal Playing Field: Report on the Needs of People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Living in Canada, released in November, 2005 reported:

  • 48% of all adult blind consumers reported gross annual incomes of $20,000 or less, regardless of marital or family status.
  • 25% of blind consumers aged 21 to 64 reported that they are employed, 49% reported that they do not have jobs.
  • About 19.5% of working-age consumers had completed one or more university degrees, 17.8% had successfully completed high school, and 14% had achieved a community college diploma.
  • The most common barrier encountered in the employment search involved employer attitudes, 27% of working-age participants reported that employers do not see the blind applicant’s potential, and another 26% indicated that employers are unwilling to hire someone with a vision impairment.

C. Findings of an online survey conducted by Ipsos Reid for The Canadian Association of Optometrists among 1121 Canadians, completed online, between August 17 and August 21, 2006:

  • Seven in ten Canadians (70%) say their eyesight is so precious to them that absolutely nothing would be worth giving it up for, not even winning the lottery, living a full healthy life to the age of 100, being Prime Minister of Canada, or enjoying great sex for the rest of their lives.
  • 21% would trade 10 years of their life to regain their sight.

These statistics result in part from the public's prevailing negative view of blindness:

“. . . the two most feared disorders are cancer and blindness, although neither of these ever ranks in the top three in most cost-of-illness rankings.” – Dr. Barbara Robinson, OD, MPH, PhD, School of Optometry, University of Waterloo in National Consultation on the Crisis in Vision Loss

RECOMMENDATIONS

1. A NEW LEVEL OF COMMITMENT:

The Prime Minister and Provincial Premiers need to demonstrate a new level of urgency and leadership to the employment and economic plight of persons with various disabilities, including Canadians who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted, by calling together leaders from business, labour and organizations “of” persons with disabilities to develop a heightened commitment, new strategies and programs, and forge a new partnership. The new National Economic Strategy must cover individuals who have both visible and invisible disabilities. It must address the needs of persons with various levels of disability, and should work actively to achieve employment and income rates among persons who are blind and otherwise disabled that are roughly equivalent to those of non-disabled Canadians.

2. EMPLOYMENT IN THE FEDERAL PUBLIC SERVICE:

One long-term employee in the federal public service observed:

"I can't move higher because I have not had management experience, and I can't get management experience without opportunities. I am in a position where I have found myself before - no one knows what to do with me. Very demoralizing."

To demonstrate a heightened commitment, The Treasury Board of Canada must take steps to transform the federal public service into a model employer. These steps should focus on three major areas:

  • Recruitment
  • Retention
  • Promotion

The federal government should develop an aggressive proactive recruitment plan to increase the representation of persons with various disabilities at all levels, including persons who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted; review job descriptions to ensure that job requirements are current and job-related; develop a targeted program of internships; re-establish a central fund for covering the costs of needed assistive devices and adaptive technology; conduct an ongoing awareness program with managers to remove attitudinal barriers; and remove barriers to performing real work and seeking promotions.

3. THE FEDERAL EMPLOYMENT EQUITY ACT:

Enacted in 1986, the Act’s purpose is to achieve equality in federally regulated workplaces and to correct historic inequities, so that no person is denied employment opportunities for reasons other than their ability to do the job. It has had differential effect on each of the four target groups it covers.

The act applies to four different categories of federally regulated employers employing just under one million employees or 6% of the Canadian workforce.

These include:

  • Private sector employers and Crown corporations with 100 or more employees in the federally regulated sectors, primarily in the Transportation, Banking, and Communications industrial sectors;
  • Federal departments and agencies for which the Treasury Board is the employer, no matter the number of employees;
  • Separate Agencies with more than 100 employees that are in the federal public administration as named in Schedule 5 v. of the Financial Administration Act and report directly to Parliament;
  • Other public sector employers including the Canadian Forces, RCMP and CSIS.

The Act should be amended to reduce the coverage threshold from 100 employees in stages to not more than 20 employees, and it should be strengthened to provide greater results in terms of representation of persons with various disabilities.

4. THE FEDERAL CONTRACTORS PROGRAM:

The FCP covers non-federally regulated employers who have 100 or more employees, and who have contracts of $200,000 or more with the Federal government. Contractors in construction and legal services are excluded. Currently approximately 936 contractors (employing over 1.1 million individuals) are covered by FCP. This represents 6.9% of the Canadian labour force. A majority of FCP employers have fewer than 500 employees.

In order to bid on a federal contract of $200,000 or more, a covered employer must sign a commitment to employment equity and agree to implement, if the successful bidder, eleven steps leading to the implementation of an employment equity plan. The goal is to have a plan which, if implemented, will ensure reasonable progress towards fair representation for the four designated groups in line with their representation in the relevant workforce.

The Federal Contractors Program (Section 42(2))should be extended in phases by reducing the threshold number of employees from 100 in stages to not more than 20, to cover a wider number of employers, and its provisions should be strengthened to ensure greater results for Canadians with various disabilities, including workers who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.

5. EMPLOYER COMMITMENT:

Blindness remains one of the least understood disabilities. There is a need for an ongoing program to educate and gain commitment from employers for the employment, retention and advancement of workers with various disabilities, including employees who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted.

6. EMPLOYMENT READINESS PROGRAMS:

To help overcome the effects of marginalization, a variety of employment readiness programs must be available that are targeted for persons with various disabilities, including individuals who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted. Work experience programs are particularly important for persons with limited exposure to the labor market or who have lower levels of education.

Currently, the Employment Insurance Program (EI) offers some re-training and other employment supports. However, these initiatives are intended only for EI recipients. This has the effect of doubly penalizing many individuals with disabilities who have not had the opportunity to accumulate sufficient labour market attachment to qualify for EI benefits. The criteria for training programs must either be extended to also include historically disadvantaged groups such as persons with various disabilities, or new and targeted employment support programs must be initiated.

7. REMOVAL OF DISINCENTIVES:

Economic disincentives in existing social assistance programs must be removed. Earning ceilings for current social assistance recipients must be increased. Disability supports and benefits after return to work must be maintained. Rapid re-instatement to income security programs must be available if one should lose one’s paid employment.

8. ASSISTIVE DEVICES PROGRAMS:

The federal government should assist all provinces and territories to establish a program similar to Ontario's Assistive Devices Program, to cover part or all of the costs of needed assistive devices, and these programs should be available throughout one’s lifetime. Individuals must have the opportunity to gain training on adaptive technology before embarking on a job search.

9. ACCESSIBLE AND USABLE TECHNOLOGY:

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) that is fully accessible and usable will increase an organization's bottom line and support the employment of all groups of Canadians.

However, changes to existing ICT can make it impossible for current employees, particularly employees who are blind, deaf-blind or partially sighted, to use new technology, which threatens experienced employees and prevents new hiring. Employers, especially the Government of Canada, should restrict purchases to ICT (devices and software) that is usable by all employees.

10. CANADA'S APPRENTICESHIP SYSTEM:

At the 2006 biennial conference of the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, "Apprenticeship — A Winning Formula," a recurring theme was the chronic shortage of workers that trades professions are currently experiencing. At this same time, persons with various disabilities -- one of Canada's most unemployed and under-employed groups -- have not been sufficiently encouraged to seriously consider the trades as a viable career choice. The Canadian Apprenticeship forum should be provided with some dedicated funding to examine the barriers and to make recommendations that will increase the representation of persons with various disabilities in the trades across Canada.

11. WORKPLACE ACCOMMODATIONS:

Accommodating employees is a very individualized process. The affected employee, who often knows best what is needed, must be directly involved. The technology and solutions are known but often not used. Cost is usually far less than expected, and large employers like the federal public service can bear such costs. Federal, provincial and territorial officials should discuss the creation of A fund to assist smaller employers, but first and foremost, employers must recognize and discharge their legal obligation to accommodate employees short of undue hardship.

CONCLUSION

Disability issues cut across virtually all levels of government, departments and sectors of our society. To move forward, collaboration and commitment to a long term National Economic Strategy are required. Employment initiatives are needed but they alone will not achieve the intended results. They must be accompanied by initiatives in other areas, such as disability supports, income security, training, and the removal of disincentives in income security programs. Disability needs are individual and a more positive climate must be created where the individual is encouraged and supported to take risks and experiment. Flexibility, consumer involvement, and coordination are the critical elements of any successful initiative to address disability issues. Governments, business, labor and the disability community must work collaboratively to find new solutions. This work requires a long-term commitment. The AEBC is anxious to play a role in realizing a new day for Canadians with various disabilities.