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Employment Equity For The Disabled: Premier Harris Gets It Wrong

Newly elected Ontario Premier, Mike Harris, planted both feet firmly in his mouth when he criticized employment equity for the disabled. The May 31, 1995, edition of the Ottawa Citizen quoted him as saying "Employment equity covers the disabled, for example, but it's the wrong way to deal with the disabled. What we are saying (under employment equity) to an employer is, 'Now here is a disabled person only 50 percent as good as an able-bodied worker but you must hire them and pay them as much as an able-bodied person.' That's nonsense. Why should that employer? It doesn't make sense." Premier Harris is right, there's a lot that doesn't make sense. Let's begin with his comments. In the Federation, we say that blind people can compete on equal terms, given training and opportunity. We mean just that. We are not asking, and we have never asked, to be permitted to do 50 percent of the work of our colleagues. If we can't pull our own weight, we really don't deserve to be hired. Of course, we can and do pull our own weight. Thousands of blind people all over the world are working successfully at full productivity. Study after study has affirmed that reality. Why, then, did Mr. Harris make the incredibly ignorant statement quoted in the Ottawa Citizen? Perhaps he is unaware of the successful record of employed blind people. Perhaps he is an unabashed bigot. Perhaps - and this is the most likely possibility - he was thinking of "the disabled" as a homogeneous mass of people. In his mind, each one of "the disabled" is a composite made of all the limitations imposed by every disabling condition. This poor pathetic creature is blind, deaf, mentally handicapped, and quadriplegic. How could anyone expect a person with such severe limitations to compete? The poor brave soul should be commended for 50 percent productivity.

Government policy has encouraged Mr. Harris in his delusion. At the Federal and Provincial levels, governments have found it more convenient to devise a "one size fits all" policy for all people with disabilities. Whenever anyone has the temerity to point out the obvious fact that different disabilities require different policies, government officials nod and say "Yes dear. Every individual is special. But we can't devise policies for every person. After all, some people might have more than one disability. We need a policy that is all inclusive."

Many people with disabilities have allowed themselves to be suckered by that line of thinking. "After all", they reason, "there is strength in numbers, besides, we should not be selfish. We should look after everybody's interests."

Blind people have suffered from governmental refusal to regard their needs as unique. While it is true that some blind people have additional disabilities, it is also true that most do not. There are some needs which are specific to blindness that are not being met by government. For example, provincial vocational rehabilitation programs are generic. A rehabilitation counselor in a small community may work with one blind client every two or three years. That counselor cannot be expected to be knowledgeable about the rehabilitation needs of blind people.

Blind people have also suffered from the lack of a strong, unified, national self-help organization. This is not to say that the generic cross-disability movement has been totally harmful. It has been instrumental in changing laws, practices and attitudes. A number of blind people have been among the most effective of its leaders.

Comments like those of Mr. Harris demonstrate that it is time to begin differentiating blindness from other disabilities in the public mind. We cannot permit ourselves to be regarded as part of a composite. In fact, it is in the interest of everyone with any disability to destroy the composite of helplessness portrayed by Mr. Harris. A strong organization of the blind demanding that government recognize the unique needs of blind people could go a long way toward clarifying the real nature of blindness.

One of the most pressing needs we face is the need to lower the unconscionably high rate of unemployment among the blind. Far too many employers seem to think like Mr. Harris. They regard hiring a blind person as an act of charity rather than as a savvy business decision. Discrimination based on the perceived inabilities of blind people, is rampant. Mr. Harris has done nothing to solve that problem. In fact, he has raised ignorance to the level of a politically acceptable art form.

So what are we to do? What policies should we advocate?

At the heart of most of the misconceptions about blindness is a lack of exposure to blind people. Our "catch 22" is that employers are not exposed to the quality work of blind employees until they've hired one of us. Doing so seems to be a huge leap of faith for some employers. It is tempting to require some sort of quota system in order to educate employers about blindness.

It is tempting - but probably not wise. An employer who hires someone under a quota will likely not be looking for excellence. Neither will coworkers. In fact, it is likely that less will be demanded of a blind worker. The worker may not even know that standards have been compromised. No real public education will take place. Instead, old notions will be reinforced to the detriment of everyone involved.

Of course, it is also quite possible that a blind person hired under a quota will quickly demonstrate ability and disprove old ignorant notions. In those circumstances, the next blind person who applies for a job with that employer might get the job without the need of a quota system. But it would be far better for everyone concerned if we could find a way to educate without resorting to the artificiality of quotas. The British Columbia government hoped to do just that when it established a program in which the government paid part of the salary of a blind worker for the first six months. A number of blind workers were able to prove themselves and become regular employees after their six months subsidized program. A number of others, through no fault of their own were hired by employers who were glad to have a subsidized worker for a few months. These unfortunate people found themselves unemployed again as soon as the subsidy ended.

Some jurisdictions have experimented with providing tax credits to companies hiring blind workers. This has been a boon to companies which already decided to hire a blind person. It is doubtful that the availability of a tax credit has been the deciding factor.

It's clear that government schemes to encourage hiring of disabled people have both positive and negative ramifications. None of us wants to be regarded as a "quota hire" - someone who would never have been able to compete successfully for a position without the quota program. However, knowing no quotas were used is no comfort to a blind person who's been excluded from a job because of discrimination.

We are left with the old, slow, often frustrating task of public education. As an organization, the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality needs to seek ways to reach potential employers with our message of the productivity of blind workers. We need to think carefully about how government can help.

Blind people can compete with the sighted. Sometimes we will win that competition. Sometimes we will lose. Provided the competition is fair, we will celebrate our victories and take our lumps along with everyone else. We are not prepared to take it when the highest government official in Canada's largest province deliberately and systematically creates an unfair climate of disrespect for the abilities of Ontario's blind citizens. We hope Premier Harris will rethink his position - correction - we hope that Premier Harris will think about his position for the first time. He is committed to the notion that employees should earn their keep. So are we.