Disability and Unemployment – The Vicious Cycle Must be Broken.
A few months ago I attended a job workshop at a highly regarded career centre. Their reputation for easing unemployment amongst their clients was impressive to say the least. They had it all: up-to-date resources, access to technology, business networks and a dedicated team. The program leader patiently guided us through tips for a successful job hunt, common resume mistakes, and interview etiquette. At the end of the session, she went around the room and had each of us state our desired positions and skill set. She was determined to showcase her expertise by directing us to the right resources and connecting us with qualified hiring agencies.
At the end of the table sat a young man, no older than 25, with trembling hands and a mop of black hair. He admitted that he had no professional experience, but had volunteered extensively for the past 2 years in the retirement home down the road. Quietly, he disclosed that he was a person of disability and would like to work with children with special needs in an after school setting. He believed that was his true calling – to be a role model.
Upon hearing this, the program leader blinked. She asked him what he did as a volunteer and if there was someone supervising him at all times. Confused, he confessed that he spent his days assisting a personal support worker. Then she leaned back and thought for a moment. “I think I can find a position for you,” she said, “what do you think about being a Walmart greeter?”
As soon as she said those words, his face dropped and the shine left his eyes. “Okay, I guess.”
She applauded him for keeping his mind open and proceeded to list all the transferable skills he can mention on his resume. But it was obvious that he had long stopped listening.
I left the workshop with a bad taste in my mouth. He had clearly outlined his career goals and trusted her with personal information, and she, in turn, demonstrated what most employers do: she placed him a box. She categorized him as a differently abled person and failed to appreciate and acknowledge his aspirations. Not to say that being a Walmart greeter is demeaning or unsatisfying, but to blatantly ignore a person’s chosen path in favour of familiar societal practices and expectations is inconsiderate not to mention unprofessional.
Conversation surrounding disability unemployment remains one-sided
Although the conversation surrounding disability has improved significantly in recent decades, it still remains largely one sided. People of disability initiate conversations and tackle issues of accessibility and workplace prejudice while society passively listens. Fortunately, an agreement is reached but not a solution. Space and policies are created, but it is less about the bureaucratic standards than it is about integration, understanding and acceptance. Simply put, people of disability are increasingly herded into a bubble, albeit roomy, that remains marginalized and stigmatized. One only has to witness the flush of panic on a server’s face when greeted by a differently abled individual to understand. The awkward pauses and stammering is a true testimony of how ill-prepared abled people are to interact with persons of disability. Here, it is not a matter of more government issued training, but of showing empathy and practicing patience.
According to Statistics Canada, “the employment rate of Canadians aged 25 to 64 with disabilities was 49%, compared with 79% for Canadians without a disability”. The numbers are disappointing. Despite heartwarming success stories and efforts put forth to make the workplace welcoming, people of disability remain undesirable to most employers. In fact, “among Canadians with a disability, 12% reported having been refused a job in the previous five years as a result of their condition. The percentage was 33% among 25 to 34 year olds”. Education, experience and personality, all cornerstones in hiring process, matter little even amongst the mildly disabled candidates.
Over qualification is common, as with frustration, when people of disability enter the job market. Deaf university graduates apply to menial kitchen jobs as restaurant managers wonder how they can ‘function’ in such a ‘dangerous environment’ behind closed doors. The HR meeting usually ends when the statement “We have to consider them. By law, we can’t discriminate” is whispered. Yes, ‘by law’ as if that was the single most important incentive, above human compassion and understanding. Perhaps the only thing worse than prejudice is when employers request proof of disability in order to meet hiring quotas established by the government or to take advantage of government funding. As typical in such situations, the pay is meager at best.
It is no surprise, given such grim results, that people of disability become discouraged, remain unemployed and give up. What’s more? Their oppression and hardships affect families, communities and the society at large. With a significant chunk of the workforce rejected due to manageable physical and/or developmental restrictions, the economy sputters. There is a void of the dead loss variety when useful talents, skills and passions are undervalued and wasted.
People of disability are robbed of their purchasing power as well as their contribution in terms of the goods and services they could provide. This results in long term dependency on government assistance which, aside from lasting economic ramifications, fuels the stigma that disability is a social burden and thereby rightfully shunned.
Such is the vicious cycle of disability and unemployment. And the designated role of the Walmart greeter is far from enough to remedy the situation.
The challenge of disability is not individual or specific to a small, closed community, but a complex national topic to be addressed with empathy and mindfulness. Integration of people of disability must extend beyond policies and regulations of the workforce and expand into every aspect of society. It is public as much as it is personal, affecting others as much as ourselves; just as an after school worker discovers joy in his work as the children finds joy in his compassion and patience.