Less than half of working-age Canadians with physical and mental disabilities have a job, a significantly lower percentage than the general population, according to Statistics Canada.
A data agency report released Wednesday coincides with International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a UN sanctioned day to raise awareness. The report covers data from 2011 and indicates 49 per cent of Canadians between ages 25 and 64 who said they have a disability could find employment. That compares with a 79 per cent employment rate among the general working-age population.
"Canadians with disabilities include those with a physical or mental disability related to seeing, hearing, mobility, flexibility, dexterity, pain, learning, development, psychological/mental disorders or memory," the agency says.
'Technology has opened up the world to have us participate' - CNIB spokesperson Diane Bergeron
About two million people across Canada self-identify in that category — about 11 per cent of Canada's entire population for that age group. Out of those more than two million people, only about a million of them have some sort of job.
Within the group of individuals who consider themselves to have some sort of disability, the agency divides disabilities into four categories, with these job rates:
- Mild disability — 68 per cent employment rate.
- Moderate disability — 54 per cent.
- Severe disability — 42 per cent.
- Very severe — 26 per cent.
Generally speaking, the more severe the disability, the less likely an individual will get work.
Diane Bergeron is the national director for government relations and advocacy with the CNIB. She says the main problem that people with vision issues face in terms of employability isn't a lack of skills — it's a perception and an assumption that they can't do the job, or that the workplace will have to accommodate them in some onerous way.
"People think 'if I was to close my eyes, I couldn't do any of the work I do, like use the computer or read files' [so they assume a blind person can't either]," she said in an interview. "But what they don't think about is there are talking computers — technology has opened up the world to have us participate."
According to the Statistics Canada report, having a university degree seems to increase the odds of finding employment, for both Canadians with disabilities and without.
Education pays off
Employment rates for university graduates with mild, moderate and severe disabilities weren't that far off from the rate for those without any disability — the rates for all the categories ranged between 77 and 83 per cent.
But the employment rate of university graduates with a very severe disability was lower, at 59 per cent.
A bias against disabled people with the appropriate level of education is a big problem, Bergeron says, because people with vision issues often face disproportionate difficulties in getting a job, even after they've gone out and obtained the necessary level of education.
"Employers always tell me that their ideal employee has skills like strategic thinking, problem solving, drive and passion," she says. Those are the types of skills that blind people have in abundance, as they need to use them to do countless daily tasked that sighted people — the "retinally dependent," she quips — aren't even aware of, such as getting into work in the first place.
"All the skills you want in an employee are abundant in an employee who you have decided isn't ideal," Bergeron says.
Statistics Canada's numbers show education is clearly a factor in employability across all groups, and the numbers suggest that's especially true for Canadians with disabilities.
Among those with a severe or very severe disability and less than a high school diploma, the employment rate was only 20 per cent. That compares to a 65 per cent employment rate for the population at large of Canadians who didn't finish high school.
Perhaps most troublingly, people with disabilities often earn far less than other Canadians without a disability — even when doing similar work.
Men with disabilities and who have university degrees and full-year, full-time work earned an average of $69,200 in 2011, compared to $92,700 for men with no disability.
The numbers showed the same trend for women, although the gap was smaller.
Among women university graduates working full time, employment income for those with disabilities averaged $64,500, compared with $68,000 for those without a disability.
It's a story that Bergeron hears often — the right person for the job is passed over because society has decided they might be "disruptive" to the workplace and not worth the cost of accommodating.
"That's the perception," Bergeron says, "that they wouldn't have the skills."