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Blinding Grinding Poverty

Four out of five working age blind Canadians do not have an opportunity to work and contribute to this country's economic growth. Broadly speaking, the labor force participation for blind persons is 20% compared to 40% for all those with a seeing disability, 44% for all persons with disabilities and 73% for non-disabled Canadians. Thus, most blind persons have an inadequate income during working age and after retirement, well below the level of other Canadians. Blind persons have a standard of living inferior to all other Canadians.

Admittedly, this is an over-simplified presentation of the surveys and data results depicting the plight of today's working aged blind persons in Canada. Intentionally in this article, for the sake of clarity of message, the economic niceties have been glossed over and include the distinction between labor force participation rates and unemployment rates, or the shifting of labels/definitions between reports to describe disability and blindness. All are invited to dispute the reality depicted here and present a more socially acceptable picture. We are confident that further study and/or clarifying explanations will only paint a more horrific picture than the facts enable this article to portray. It is all too real for those who live with denied access, lack of opportunity and unequal opportunity on a day to day basis year after year, generation after generation.

It is not the disability of blindness that creates this poverty and despair but the Handicapping effects of an educational, vocational, rehabilitation and employment apparatus of non-blind persons whose livelihood and very survival is dependent on reinforcing society's charitable medical model of blindness which calls for us to be hidden away from mainstream society. Out of sight, out of mind in the labor force keeps the donations coming for the care of the blind. Here are the benefits and results of this neglect and the environment which perpetuates the isolation and segregation of blind persons from the mainstream of Canadian society.

More than half of all blind and partially sighted persons who are trying to work are denied access to the labor force. 54.4% is the lack of participation rate among Blind persons from the most recently available data, as extrapolated from Figure 2.2 of the book "Living with Disability in Canada: an Economic Portrait" by Dr. G. Fawcett. The labor force consists of persons in paid employment and persons actively seeking paid employment.

The comparison of labor force participation rates for persons with and without blindness is difficult, on account of the likelihood that certain questions asked to determine whether a respondent was actively seeking work have a different significance for each group. For example, one of the questions has to do with whether the respondent looked at "help wanted" ads. This activity might be difficult for some persons with seeing disabilities.

In 1991 persons with seeing disabilities had a fairly low unemployment rate when compared to the rates for other disability groups. Yet, they had almost the lowest labour force participation rate compared to those for other disability groups.

A person with a severe disability who has not had paid employment for many years--perhaps never--may be willing to work, preparing to seek paid employment (for example, by doing volunteer work, acquiring labour market skills) and intending to actively seek paid employment, and yet may be unable to answer affirmatively any of the "participation" questions for a given four-week period. Dr. Fawcett points out that, in 1991, over half of persons with disabilities who were not in the labour force either showed some sign of work potential or cited an environmental or personal barrier as the reason they were out of the labour force. Lack of appropriate transportation between home and work would be an environmental barrier. The need to attend a hospital for treatment might be a personal barrier.

In 1986 the unemployment rate was 64.9% among persons with a visual disability giving an employment rate of 35.1%. The progress since 1986, namely a rise in the participation level of 10.5%, is due primarily to a greater number of persons with usable vision being included in the count as illustrated later in this discussion when looking at severity of disability.

In 1986 blind persons were ranked seventh and last among the disability groups and thus, were the most unemployable, based on the nature of the disability. People with speaking and mental disabilities, relatively speaking, had a greater chance of being employed than blind people. In 1991 with an employment rate of 44.4%, blind persons had rocketed up the ability chain two places to fifth spot. While the preceding percentages are for those participating and not participating in employment, it is worth noting in passing that approximately 212,000 of the Statistics Canada estimated 635 000 blind Canadians earned a wage in 1991, which has profound implications for the financial well-being of blind Canadians.

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), with an 80,000 cliant base of which three quarters are considered legally blind, reports a similar result in their Consumers First report. Approximately one in four blind and visually impaired Canadians is of working age. This sector of CNIB's clientele is growing at a rate of approximately 6 percent each year.

Goss Gilroy Inc., in a study for CNIB, found that just under 40 percent of Canadians with seeing disabilities were employed in 1991, 6 percent wer unemployed, and fully 54 percent were not in the workforce, including those who choose not to work and those who have become discouraged and who have given up looking for work. In contrast, the employment rate for persons with disabilities in general was almost 44 percent; for persons without a disability, the employment rate was 73 percent.

The employment picture is better for working age adults who have skills in braille. In 1995, the CNIB's Library for the Blind conducted a study on the impact of braille literacy on library services to blind Canadians. The study found that, of braille readers who responded to the mail survey, 6 percent were actively seeking employment, a figure that matches the Goss Gilroy findings. Of those who were employed, 52 percent reported household incomes higher than $25,000; fully 14 percent reported household earnings of more than $50,000, compared to just 10 percent of the Canadian population at large. In addition, 11 percent of the braille readers had university degrees, compared to 14 percent of Canadians, and 14 percent of these braille readers had more than one degree. The report stated that the findings underscore "what the rest of society takes for granted, that literacy is the cornerstone for education, employment and independence."

Statistics Canada notes, in the results of the 1986 Census of Canada, however, that almost 50 percent of the visually impaired workforce has less than eight years of education, compared to just 14 percent of the overall workforce. In contrast to the CNIB findings regarding blind Canadians with braille skills, only about 4 percent of all visually impaired workers have graduated from university.

The Statistics Canada 1991 HALS study defined an individual as having a seeing disability if he or she:-had difficulty seeing ordinary newsprint with corrective lenses if usually worn, or had difficulty seeing the face of someone four metres or twelve feet across a room with corrective lenses if usually worn.

Of the 635,000 Canadians with a seeing disability:

511,000 were adults living in households 80 %

94,000 were adults living in institutions 15 %

30,000 were children aged 14 or younger 5 %

Approximately 94,000 adults were said to have the most severe seeing difficulty: they were completely unable either to see the face of someone across a room or to read ordinary newsprint with corrective lenses if usually worn.

The illusion of any positive progress is shattered when the severity of the disability is factored into the equation. The severity of each disability was measured according to whether a respondent could perform a given function only with difficulty or not at all. In 1991 34.2% of "sight impaired" persons had a mild disability, 34.1% a moderate visual disability and 31.7% a severe visual disability. It is not unreasonable to conclude that those with a severe visual disability have little or no usable vision. 20.9% of sight impaired persons with a severe visual disability were employed in 1991, meaning that 79.1% of blind persons trying to earn a living were not participating in the labour force.

When considering all persons with a visual disability, 16.7% required accessible transportation, 27.6% required job redesign, and 29.4% required modified working hours. It is reasonable to conclude that the job redesign is the need for adaptive equipment such as talking computers and braille output devices for computers. It is reasonable to further conclude, supported by the relative closeness between the 27.6% job accommodation figure and the 31.7% number of persons with a severe visual impairment, that the severely visually impaired would rely extensively on this workplace accommodation. Thus, the cost and complexity of accommodation are a major force in determining whether a person can do the job, since only 19.9% of persons with a mild disability and 46.9% of persons with a moderate visual disability were not participating in the Labour Force, as compared to the overwhelming 79.1% of the severely visually impaired persons who want to work but are not being given access to the labour force. Being blind means being shut out.

Arguably, society thinks of blind people when giving money and support to those who offer help to this group. It is for aid in overcoming the information deprivation of blindness that money and resources are so generously showered on the service providers.

Thus, 50.9% of persons with a visual disability not requiring any accommodation were able to successfully find work in 1991. No one would even suggest that persons with a mild or moderate visual impairment should not receive all the support needed to meet the challenges of the labour force. However, their successes should not be used to mask the plight of those who do not function on the visual plane. It is clear that lack of sight not only means lack of opportunity, but also means denied benefit from the resources intended to assist this group of deserving Canadians. The facts speak for themselves in validation of this conclusion.

The Consumers First report of the major provider of services to "blind" persons in Canada notes that "More than three out of four .... clients have 10 percent vision or less; the remainder have more than 10 percent vision." Arguably, approximately 25% of those receiving service are not even considered "legally" blind. At least another 50% of those receiving service function on the visual plain and seek to maximize the use of their residual vision to function visually like the majority of Canadians. It appears that less than one quarter of the total group being helped in the name of the blind are in fact blind people who rely primarily on other senses to perform the tasks of daily living.

The same Consumer First report indicates that approximately 25% of the client base are between the ages of 30 and 49, but this group makes the most calls on services in a year. Arguably, these are the most in need of financial resources, having finished their studies, and need employment and financial security for themselves and their dependents.

As an aside, it could be argued that those with a visual impairment, moderate or slight, have been handicapped by being streamed into the environment of the blind. Blind persons have also been handicapped by this streaming because the successes of those functioning on the visual plane have been used to show funders and donors that value for money to help "the blind" has been received: masking the plight of the average blind person with the accomplishments of the few. This is another factor accounting for the approximately 80% unemployment rate among blind persons. Keeping in mind the two classes of opportunity and benefit, one for persons with usable vision and one for blind persons, the aggregate picture of income levels is still horrific. As the disability increases, so does the poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of employment opportunities and lack of quality of life.

57.5% of sight impaired persons who worked more than 30 hours a week earned less than $25,000 in 1991. The "official" poverty rate among blind persons was 29.6% in 1991.

To move beyond this point, it is only possible to extrapolate from the studies of all persons with disabilities to make some generalizations about blind persons which probably parallel the reality for persons with other disabilities.

The book "Living with disability in Canada: an Economic Portrait" by Gail Fawcett, Ph.D. suggests that "The employability of persons with disabilities has as much to do with their environment as it does with their disabilities." Dr. Fawcett distinguishes between "disabilities" and "handicaps". "Disabilities are functional limitations due to impairments. Handicaps are disadvantages experienced by the interaction of impairments or disabilities with an individual's environment."

She concluded that persons whose underlying condition was present before they completed their formal education tended to have higher levels of educational attainment and labour force participation than those whose disabilities occurred later. Two interpretations of these differences are suggested. One is that persons in the former group are likely to be younger and thus to have more opportunity to plan ahead and to adapt their future lives to their disabilities. The second but not alternative interpretation is that, recognizing the employment disadvantage of having a disability, they take steps to extend their education and training.

Regardless of severity, people with hearing and unknown physical disabilities have higher rates of labour force participation than those with other disabilities. The present author wonders whether seeing, speaking, mobility, agility and mental-learning disabilities, being more easily recognized than hearing or unknown physical disabilities, are greater deterrents from labour market access.

For persons with and without disabilities, the higher the level of educational attainment the lower the unemployment rate. In 1991 completion of post-secondary education was associated with an unemployment rate of 10% for persons with disabilities compared to 65% for those without disabilities. Persons without disabilities and a high school diploma also had an unemployment rate of about 10%. The unemployment rate differential for persons with and without disabilities was greater for some occupational groups than for others. The differential was less for clerical, sales-service, and blue collar occupations than for professional-managerial, semi-professional-technical, and supervisor-foreman-forewoman occupations. For blue collar workers, the rates were 14% and 13% respectively, but for semi-professional-technical workers they were 15% and 6% respectively. For professional-managerial workers, both rates were lower, but the differential was still fairly large: 7% and 3% respectively.

Between 1986 and 1991 unemployment rates dropped for those with mild or moderate disabilities but rose for those with severe disabilities. IN the latter year the rate for persons with severe disabilities rose to 28%. Unlike the other two groups, this group's employment rate increased but little. Most of those who moved into the labour force remained unemployed. Especially given our high unemployment rates since 1991, one wonders how long they continued to seek work.

The results of multiple regression analysis reveal that the most important factors determining the earnings of persons with disabilities in 1991 were education, occupation, training, sex and age. This analysis was confined to persons in full-time employment (30 or more hours per week). Education is considered to be the single most important variable because it exerts both strong direct and indirect effects on earnings of persons with disabilities. For both sexes the greatest earnings premium came from obtaining post-secondary (non-trade) credentials.

Having a disability increases a person's chances of being poor. In this study, "poverty" is based on Statistics Canada's low income cutoff definition." These cutoffs are based on family income and are adjusted for family size and the size of the community. They are not adjusted for the extra costs involved in having a disability. Even beyond the costs of foregone earnings opportunities, persons with disabilities must often spend money for items and services related to their disabilities. In 1991 36% of persons with disabilities reported having at least one such expenditure that was not reimbursed.

Adults with disabilities derive their economic support from a variety of sources, and their chances of being poor vary depending on the source of income. Those who receive earnings are least likely to be poor. For those who rely on an income support program, their odds of being poor vary widely, depending on the program. The two most important factors that determine eligibility for a disability income program are past labour force participation and how the disability occurred. Persons with sufficient labour force involvement can qualify for such programs as the Canada Pension Program and Quebec Pension Program disability benefits, private disability pensions or workers compensation, which are likely to be more generous than benefits available under social assistance.

In 1991 adults with severe disabilities were much more likely to be poor (30%) than those with mild disabilities (18%). Between 1986 and 1991, the percentage dropped for persons with mild and moderate disabilities but rose for those with severe disabilities. Rates for persons with disabilities ranged from a low of 16% for persons with unknown physical disabilities to a high of 31% for those with speaking disabilities. Those with seeing disabilities (30%) were not far behind.

So we come full circle and find that the onset of blindness at an early age is a prescription for misery. Given the key importance of education one cannot help wondering why the school systems have not graduated more blind students worthy of being employed in the classroom along side their sighted former classmates. Could it be that we have replaced the segregated residential schools for the blind of the sixties with the isolation of mainstream education, as yet another way of avoiding the acceptance of blind persons as equals entitled to integration and equity. Struggling against the unwillingness of educators to provide report cards to parents who are blind is yet more evidence, if any were needed, that the educational system perpetuates a medieval notion of blindness towards students and parents alike--human beings who just happen to be blind.

Waiting for years to receive vocational counselling and testing that ends up suggesting suitable occupational goals for a totally blind person include surgeon, truck driver or floral arranger contribute to the 79.1% lack of participation among persons with a severe visual impairment. Little wonder that employers strive mightily to avoid hiring blind persons. As we move towards a service based economy, having a blind person at the cash register, ticket counter or gas pump seems more remote than ever.

Lack of role models in the school system, in the workplace and in the media all contribute to the devaluation of the self-worth, self-confidence and self-esteem of blind persons. Acceptance of the dignity of risk, the right to choose and the essential need for self-determination in the service delivery model offer the only practical hope for braking the handicap of dependency and poverty in the Canadian environment.

One cannot help wondering if all blind persons had been treated equally and equitably since 1918, if these handicaps facing blind persons would be a thing of the past. Veterans received access to education without student loans, access to equipment without first having a job, access to funds to cover the costs of blindness like transportation, access to support services like readers and homemakers, access to choice in rehabilitation and employment services.

Many have wondered why two classes of blind persons exist in Canada. If you happened to be injured on the job, blinded as a result of a car accident or lost your sight in the defence of the country, help and support flowed forth in stark contrast to blindness from birth or eye disease. As early as 1926 Canadians were called on to redress this inequity which fosters the economic reality of doing business in Canada, and that is serving or hiring the blind is an unjustified, unfair and unnecessary cost of doing business, to be avoided as long as possible. Witness the battles over access to information in alternative formats with all whether it be election ballots, telephone books, thermostats or sales flyers. All these barriers contribute to the continued unemployability of blind Canadians.

This is not new information. Report after report has drawn attention to this government-condoned and encouraged margenalization of blind Canadians. It is unlikely that Canadians will learn from the past as the current model is comforting, as it perpetuates existing and longstanding stereotypes of blindness. The pessimism is heightened by a review of past reports and is a fitting finale to this review of the Economics of blindness.

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