The federal government has created a panel aimed at increasing access to jobs in the private sector for people with disabilities, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley announced this morning.

The group has been instructed to identify best practices and successes in the participation of persons with disabilities in the labour market, and to identify barriers and disincentives to their employment.

The panel, chaired by Kenneth J. Fredeen, a lawyer with Deloitte & Touche LLP, will do consultations and prepare a report for Finley and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty by the end of December.

"It's important to us that all Canadians can participate fully in the workplace and indeed all aspects of society," Finley said at the announcement in Ottawa.

The other members of the panel include: 

  • Dr. Gary Birch, executive director of the Neil Squire Society.
  • Kathy Martin, senior vice-president of human resources with Loblaw Companies.
  • Mark Wafer, owner of Megleen Inc., which operates several Tim Hortons franchises.

The panel has already started meeting and Canadians are encouraged to participate in the online consultations beginning in September. The panel wants feedback on how employers have recruited and supported employees with disabilities at various stages of their careers, challenges that businesses face in trying to hire and keep employees with physical or mental disabilities, and how best practices have benefited businesses.

Flexible hours, a change of responsibilities, and retraining are some of the practices that can be used to accommodate employees.

"We hope that this report will serve as a resource for private sector employers in employing, retaining and promoting qualified employees with disabilities," said Finley.

Finley said this panel is an important step toward the goal of ensuring that people with disabilities have equal opportunities to participate in society, suceed, and reach their full potential.

Labour force participation is low

Workers with disabilities are dramatically under-represented in private-sector companies governed by the Employment Equity Act, the most recent annual government report on disability issues shows. However, they are over-represented in the public service.

Labour force participation among people with disabilities is low, with 59.6 per cent active in the workforce. That's much lower than the rate among people without disabilities, where 80.2 per cent of working-age adults are participating in the workforce.

"That's a statistic that has to change and that we want to help change," Finley said.

The employment rate among workers with disabilities is also much lower than among people without disabilities. Just slightly more than half of workers with disabilities have jobs, compared to 75.1 per cent among workers without disabilities, according to the 2010 annual report.

The report says that about one million people with disabilities are not in the workforce at all. About 65 per cent of those are completely prevented from working by their disabilities.

Many workers with disabilities say their employers readily accommodate them with devices, flexible work arrangements and human resource assistance.

However, a sizable portion report being discriminated against, and say their skills are not fully used on the job. "Despite the Employment Equity Act and a growing need for skilled workers, the statistics ... reveal that many people with disabilities remain underemployed and discriminated against," the 2010 report says.

"Canada can benefit greatly from integrating adults with disabilities into the workforce." The 2011 annual report was not posted online.

Finley said people with disabilities are a talent pool that needs to be tapped into more, especially when Canada has skills and labour shortages. She said barriers to their participation need to be identified and acted upon quickly.

With files from Canadian Press