Finding jobs for disabled Canadians
TheStar.com – moneyville.ca
May 27, 2012. By Alison Griffiths
In late 2009 I had a quiet word with Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. We spoke with the easy intimacy of strangers who have something life-changing in common. Jim Flaherty and I are parents of children with disabilities.
Mr. Flaherty’s son John, one of triplets, nearly died before the age of 2 after an insect bite caused encephalitis, swelling of the brain. My daughter Quinn lay near death at 4 after meningitis attacked the protective lining of her brain. John has a mental disability. Quinn is deaf.
Perhaps the minister did not topple into the financial abyss that so often swallows families like mine when a child is disabled. However, I’m pretty sure he and his wife, Christine Elliott, shed many of the same tears my husband, David Cruise, and I did as our children travelled the long and frequently terrifying road from infancy to adulthood.
On the day of our chat, the launch of Credit Education Week Canada, I thanked Minister Flaherty for initiating the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP) two years earlier. The RDSP, with grants of up to $4,500 annually for lower income families, means that the disabled have a shot at accumulating a retirement nest egg, rarely possible for a group with low or non-existent earned income.
Two-and-a-half years later, I would like another quiet word with Mr. Flaherty. In his April budget speech he made it clear his government wants to see more disabled Canadians employed. My daughter is among millions who couldn’t agree more.
You might not think this column is about personal finance, but it is. Those unemployed and underemployed millions hit all of us in our wallets. According to Statistics Canada 12.5 million Canadians are disabled. Of those 15 to 64 years old, 54 per cent are unemployed or not in the workforce. And about half of those who are unemployed earn less than $15,000 annually.
I don’t think it is a stretch to say that if the unemployment rate were the same for the disabled, who are capable of work, as it is for the rest of the population, the government might not have had to delay eligibility for Old Age Security, as was announced last month.
There would be more taxes in government coffers and the health costs associated with disabilities would plummet as an entire population has the opportunity to feel better about themselves and lead happier lives. Not only that but the working disabled would be an economic stimulus onto themselves with money to spend. Finally, there would be millions of parents, siblings and other supporting family members who would be financially better off, able to pay down debt more quickly and save for their own retirements.
Minister Flaherty recognizes all of this, I presume, since he committed to increase funding for “skills training and career experiences” aimed at getting the disabled off various social services payrolls which, by the way, allows them to live in splendid poverty.
The problem is Mr. Flaherty is going down the wrong road to reach this admirable goal. Here’s why.
My daughter Quinn recently graduated from a two-year program at the esteemed George Brown College culinary school. She has a previous diploma from the prestigious Rochester Institute of Technology in Laboratory Sciences. Her references and marks are very good, she has work experience in the field and her passion for the kitchen is boundless, though it sometimes drives her mother crazy.
Comfortable in the hearing world, Quinn also has a brown belt in karate, a love of vegetable gardening, rides horses well and has become an avid culinary blogger. All of this while battling the disadvantage of talking with her hands in a very verbal world.
But job? Not so much.
Quinn was looking for an entry level chef position, yet interview after interview she was told that she “lacked experience” or “wasn’t what we are looking for.”
I know many young job seekers who aren’t disabled hear the same thing in these times of high youth unemployment. But in the case of my daughter this is employer code for: “I don’t understand how to handle or don’t want to be bothered with someone who has a disability.”
I know this for a fact because I’ve run employment interference for my daughter since she got her first job at the age of 12, walking ponies at parties. I have spent more than a decade begging that she be given a chance.
Fears and attitudes haven’t changed much since that first job. It is particularly sad in an industry that prides itself on supporting community causes with festivals, taste events and charitable dinners. I know chefs dedicated to improving the health of our children, healing the environment and battling the loss of farmland. But a disability in my kitchen, I don’t think so.
Just imagine, for a moment, how tightly the windows are shuttered against the disabled in other, less empathetic industries.
Mr. Flaherty’s skills training will help, but according to Statistics Canada’s 2011 Participation and Activity Limitation Survey, more of the disabled already have a trade certificate than the nondisabled population (11 per cent vs. 9 per cent .) As well, 17 per cent of adults with disabilities have a college certificate — exactly the same as the general population. Yet only 41 per cent of the disabled are employed versus 76 per cent of other Canadians.
Instead, what we need is a massive attitude change among employers towards the disabled.
Halton Region, home to the largest deaf population per capita in Canada, is a prime example of my point. Seven years ago my daughter didn’t get an interview for a summer camp job she was eminently qualified to do. Quinn protested. In a meeting with Milton officials, no one could point to a single deaf or hard of hearing person employed full or part-time then or in anyone’s memory. Yet the provincial deaf school had been located there for almost 50 years.
So, Minister Flaherty, when you have a moment could we have another brief, parent-to-parent chat? I’m certain I could help you reach your goal of putting the disabled to work far more quickly.
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