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Disabled and Poor in Canada: Many Lack Post-Secondary Education, Employment

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Hamilton Spectator, September 12, 2003.

A new Statistics Canada study confirms what activists for the disabled have argued for years-being handicapped in Canada is a near total guarantee of poverty.

Figures reported yesterday in the agency's 2001 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey conclude handicapped Canadians across the country and across age groups are less well educated, less employed and much poorer than their able-bodied neighbours.

"It's no surprise for us that the figures continue to show Canadians with disabilities are significantly disadvantaged and face tremendous barriers in trying to live," said Laurie Beachell, national coordinator of the Winnipeg-based Council of Canadians with Disabilities. "Living with a disability in Canada frequently means living in poverty."

Conducted for Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), the 104-page collection of charts and graphs paints a dismal picture of life for the more than 1.9 million disabled Canadians aged 15 to 64. Among its conclusions:

  • 60 percent have no more than a high school education and 37 percent haven't even finished that, compared to just under 52 and 25 percent of the "normal" population. In Ontario, with a population of 815,930 disabled, 60 percent ended their education after secondary school compared to 51.2 percent of the general population;

  • 54.5 percent are either unemployed or not in the labour force, compared to only 7.7 percent of their neighbours. In Ontario, 55.2 percent of handicapped residents are either unemployed or not looking for work compared to only 23.7 percent of the general population;

  • Disabled Canadians reported average income of $21,510 compared to $29,556 for the non-disabled population, a difference of 27 percent;

  • Disabled women trail handicapped men in all measures --60 percent have high school or less as their top educational achievement, 57 percent are either unemployed or not looking for work, and 81.4 percent reported income under $30,000.

For Beachell, the high unemployment and low income of the handicapped are directly linked to the failure of the education system to accommodate their special needs.

"Until recently, many Canadians with disabilities were products of the segregated school system where the education wasn't of the quality it should have been," he said. "If they do go to university or college, they'll find that many of the institutions are virtually inaccessible to them."

Accessibility, he added, includes not only the problem of getting to classrooms on upper floors in buildings without elevators, but getting to the institution in an era when support for accessible transit and living aids has been slashed in the name of deficit reduction and tax cuts.

"It all becomes a vicious cycle," he said. "We've made some progress over where we were 25 years ago, but in the last eight years we've had to fight battles to maintain what we have rather than trying to move ahead."

Deborah Tunis, director-general of HRDC's Office of Disability Issues, said efforts are being made to improve the situation. "The analysis certainly confirms that post-secondary education is really, really critical."

On the positive side, she noted that in 1998 the federal and provincial governments agreed on a vision statement for improving disability services, and for the past five years have been working on getting a program in service. Ottawa has also increased education grants to help disabled students buy support services, and agreement in principle has been reached on the terms of a labour force needs study for the disabled.

Changes to the Canada Pension Plan disability system are also planned. This branch of the Canada Pension Plan allows workers to "retire" if their disability prevents them from working. If they later try working again and fail, they can't get back on the pension. Allowing them to automatically return to the pension within two years has been approved by cabinet, but implementation is delayed pending legislative changes.

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