Beyond Disabilities: Addressing Workforce Shortages & Poverty Alleviation
12 July 2023
This week Statistics Canada released their 2019 Earnings pay gap among persons with and without disabilities, 2019 (statcan.gc.ca) and earlier this week, Bill C-22, the Canadian Disability Benefit received royal asset and was passed into law. What’s the change about and why should you care? By way of disclosure, as someone with a cognitive disability, I am all too aware of the challenges faced by people like me.
The Canada Disability Benefit would be the first federal level guaranteed monthly income supplement aimed at people living with disabilities and would be the first of its kind in Canada. This is a crucial development when we look at the Statistics Canada Earnings Pay Gap Report, where persons with disabilities make up 41% of the low-income population in Canada compared to 18% of the non-low-income population. Additionally, working aged people with severe disabilities face the highest rates of poverty in Canada, and currently we have 6.2 million persons with disabilities, 23% of whom live in poverty and that rate of poverty is 2x as high as those without disabilities.
Broadly, Canadians with disabilities are less gainfully employed than their peers without disabilities and earn significantly less (22% pay gap) across all intersections of disability. Individuals with cognitive disabilities like me experience the largest pay gap between the disabled and non-disabled at a gap of 46.4%, and the disability pay gap persists when examined by sex, age group and educational attainment.
Why does this matter? Well, in today’s labour market we’re experiencing ever increasing labour shortages, skills gaps and an inverted population triangle where there are more older and retiring individuals than there are younger working people to support them, intensifying all of it. Given Ontario’s ageing demographics, we are likely to have continued labour shortages for the foreseeable future and immigration while crucial, will be insufficient by itself to address these shortages completely. Knowing these limitations, one group of people is often overlooking, under-utilized and underemployed: persons with disabilities.
There are significant systemic and societal barriers to the labour market for persons with disabilities and the harder it is for us to enter and/or stay in the workforce, the greater negative effects on social health, workforce inclusion and limited employment opportunities for persons with disabilities, which keep us on the fringes of economic participation.
Think of persons with disabilities, or me, as an example of the Canary in the Coal mine: how easy or difficult it is for me to find gainful employment and stay employed can function as an early warning sign of potential issues and barriers within the workplace, allows employers to address those barriers before they become costly problems and to build inclusive environments from the ground up. Our experiences can also serve as indicators of systemic issues and discriminatory practices that may exist within employment settings not observed by the bulk of employees, and our struggles and successes can highlight areas where support and improvements are needed to ensure equal opportunities.
Equally important, when persons with disabilities experience barriers to entering the workforce or underemployment and are relegated systemically to poverty, that can mean we’re forced to rely solely on social assistance and benefits, which undermines our independence and membership to our communities. If barriers to employment were removed though, and we had disability supports to cover the gaps between employment and health and were considered ‘assets’ to companies for the unique perspectives and lived experiences we bring with us by existing and working in a world not built for us, the impacts would be enormous. It would mean a new, underutilized labour market, increased hiring meaning reduced unemployment, less reliance on social assistance and benefits which would increase the GDP, more taxes paid, more disposable income being pumped into the economy and access to one of the largest consumer markets: a global population of 18.5 billion persons with disabilities.
Let’s then think about disabilities and employment in a new way: the more we do to make the workforce and labour market accessible & inclusive to persons with disabilities, the more we all benefit and build a stronger, more empathetic, and resilient social fabric. Examples of this added cohesion are that employing persons with disabilities opens employers to a pool of labour that often has well-honed skills in problem solving, pattern recognition, creative thinking, innovating and with experiences within systems to help develop inclusive policies including invaluable insights into stop gap analyses at every level of society we interact with. Additionally, by virtue of existing and working in systems not built for us, and having to develop constant work-arounds, we can offer valuable insights into accessibility requirements in whatever industries we personally interact with: this can range from helping IT companies develop inclusive products and services catering to a wider range of users, helping businesses identify accessibility barriers physically and digitally, providing improved patient care in the health industry & advocacy, helping create effective supports in educational programs for students with disabilities that can go unaddressed, helping in crafting inclusive curriculum development, as well as offer more inclusive user-centered design feedback to improve the usability & functionality of products and environments for the needs of all users. This kind of free market research is quite literally invaluable and what companies pay out the nose for to understand their consume base. Persons with disabilities also provide incredibly diverse perspectives and new ways of thinking that cut through group think, often excel in decision making, predictions or projections, innovation and adaptive problem solving – all skills in high demand across all industries and hard to find.
So, it serves all of us, disabled or not, to re-think our internal biases and how we perceive disabilities and persons with disabilities and to shift away from often subconscious perceptions of persons with disabilities as ‘unable.’ Imagine instead, thinking of us as equally valuable assets and incredibly valuable partners in the labour force. A more inclusive, flexible society and employment landscape only benefits all of us and serves as a reminder that rigidity and deeply hierarchal structures limit what is considered productive and useful – and that limits all of us.