Disability Employment Awareness Month: Advocacy and Technology for an Inclusive Workplace
What is DEAM?
October is Disability Employment Awareness Month (DEAM) for a number of Canadian provinces. This yearly month-long campaign is meant to celebrate the contributions of people with disabilities in the Canadian workplace as well as to advocate for further inclusivity in their hiring and training. This campaign was adapted from the National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), a United States federal initiative started in the 1980s with the same goals in mind.
Canadian Advocacy Efforts during DEAM
The Canadian Association for Supported Employment (CASE) is one of the organizations involved with the advocacy of people with disabilities. Established in 1999, their yearly campaigns during Disability Employment Awareness Month include community engagement by encouraging people to support local businesses that hire and train people with disabilities and sharing success stories about employers who have found success in hiring them. Their campaign also includes encouraging local businesses to join the Mentor Ability program where a disabled job-seeker is paired with a mentor for a day for them to experience life in a workplace environment.
Beyond their work during the month, they also hold a yearly conference called the National Supported Employment Conference every June which is celebrating its 25th year in 2020 as well as providing support and resources for employers interested in hiring people with disabilities with references on best practices.
Technologies for People with Disabilities in the Workplace
Alongside advocacy, another important aspect of getting people with disabilities into the workplace is accessibility. This is a significant issue facing workplaces, even for ones that might be eager to hire and train people with disabilities. This is where technological advancements are most useful.
The development of these new innovations is supported by the Canadian Government through the Accessibility Technology Program: a 5 year long funding program started in 2017 with a budget of 22.3 million dollars aimed at assisting companies with the design and development of new technologies aimed at improving the lives of people with disabilities in general, primarily within the digital industries.
Some of the projects currently in the works that the program has funded that may lead to significant advances in accessibility for the workplace include:
The Accessibility Technology Program has provided 3.06 million dollars in funding for the Neil Square Society’s Lip Sync development. Lip Sync is a mouth-controlled device meant to allow people with little to no use of their arm to navigate a cursor across a touchscreen using their lips and minimal head and neck movement. The device consists of a long joystick with high sensitivity that allows for the movement of the cursor on the screen and a hollow mouthpiece for the user to be able to signal the cursor to perform left or right mouse clicks by blowing or sipping respectively.
A tool like this is significant as it allows people with disabilities to be able to interface with a touchscreen, one of the most ubiquitous pieces of media hardware currently being used.
1.86 million dollars has been provided through the program to OCAD University to assist in the design and development of Coding to Learn and Create, a project meant to teach children with developmental disabilities basic programming and coding concepts in a collaborative visual and artistic. manner. This includes resources for teachers to adapt this technology into their teaching style when using this new technology.
The project has a prototype available to the public to try out and the project encourages users to collaborate in the development of the teaching tool and associated resources.
This sort of project is significant as it presents children with disabilities with the idea that they can learn just as well as their fellow students, just in a different way. This is a boost to their self-esteem and can lead to further growth and a more independent future in the workplace.
The Accessibility Technology Program has awarded 47,000 dollars in funding for the development of Reality Controls Inc.’s Control: Master Pro app. This app allows the user to record a string of commands to save in the application to reduce the number of repetitive tasks used to navigate an Android device.
The app is particularly useful for people with issues regarding their hand dexterity as it reduces the number of steps they would need to perform more complex tasks on their touch device such as navigating multiple screens of apps to open their calendar or switch between productivity apps on their device.
HumanWare Technologies has received 1.06 million dollars in funding for its New Braille project. The company is one of the leaders in the development and distribution of visual aids for people with deteriorating eyesight as well as Braille readers and printers. This project aims to further develop their existing technologies with the aim of lowering the cost of Braille devices.
Visual impairment is a significant hindrance in the workplace and the need for lower-cost devices to assist people with this disability will only open more opportunities as employers are more able to afford this accommodation and in general, allow for easier access to these visual aids.
Why is Employment for People with Disabilities Important for Disability Credit Canada?
Yoko Ishikura in the World Economic Forum talks about the reasons why she and people in general work. She says that people work because of five factors: identity, ability, relationships, autonomy, and financial freedom. These reasons for work are the same for all people, regardless of whether or not they live with a disability.
Ishikura talks about how work forms a part of our identity. When you meet someone for the first time, you get asked “What do you do for a living?” fairly frequently as part of the first few probing questions. People partially identify who you are by what you do, in fact, there are associations made between the type of person you are and the type of work you do. She further explains that unemployed people lose their self-respect. The lack of employment for people with disabilities denies them this chance to form a crucial part of their identity and comes with this stigma that comes with unemployment.
People also work because it is a way for them to discover themselves; to find out what they enjoy and what they are really good at. Work is a way for people to hone their skills. The lack of accessibility to work for people with disabilities prevents them from seeking out what they are genuinely good at. This has also led to a misconception that most people with disabilities are somehow untrained or uneducated when Canadian adults with disabilities are 66% as likely to have a post-secondary education compared to other adults.
Jobs help us form connections with other people as well. Meeting new people when we work expands our horizons and in general, makes us a more open-minded and tolerant person. Having more people with disabilities in the Canadian workforce is not only good for their social health but also for Canadians who are fortunate enough not to suffer from the same. It can serve to disprove the misconceptions people have of them.
Doing work also gives people control over their lives. Ishikura talks about how feeling like we have a stake in our work leads to better productivity and a more fulfilling feeling toward work. We think that this extends to life as well. One of the major fears of all people is the fear of losing control. Such a fear is exacerbated by those who live with a disability because in some cases, their situation was something out of their control in the first place. Finding meaningful work can serve as a stabilizing force and can lead to a better outlook on their own life.
Lastly, financial freedom is inextricably linked to this feeling of having control over your life. Like it or not, autonomy in the modern day requires some form of financial stability. Unfortunately, according to the CPPA in 2018, some 400,000 disabled Canadians are not afforded an opportunity for financial freedom because of their situation. This means that the Disability Tax Credit, which is meant to assist Canadians with disabilities, may not even be available to them. Furthermore, while there are some who may receive the support of family, the lack of income also prevents disabled Canadians from accessing life-sustaining medicines or therapy.
People with disabilities have the same reasons and desires to seek fulfilling work as all people do. If that is so, then they should also be afforded the same opportunity to gain employment and flourish as individuals in the Canadian workplace. The work done by CASE in advocating for inclusive employment and their efforts to integrate disabled Canadians into the workplace through the Mentor-ability program works hand-in-hand with the technological advances being researched and developed by the Neil Square Society and other institutions to eventually lower the physical barrier to entry and allow disabled Canadian their rightful place as part of the diverse Canadian workforce.
Disability Credit Canada aims to assist as many disabled Canadians as possible to avail of the Disability Tax Credit in order to improve their lives by recouping their medical costs. If you would like to learn more about the Disability Tax Credit, you can find a comprehensive DTC guide here; and if you are currently caring for a child living with a disability, there is a guide on the Child Disability Benefit here.