Inclusive Employment for Canadians with Disabilities: Toward a New Policy Framework and Agenda

Canadians with disabilities continue to face relatively high rates of unemployment and underemployment despite past promises of equal opportunity for them. With a new federal government committed to policy and program innovation and inter-governmental collaboration towards a goal of inclusive growth, this report by Michael J. Prince draws on the research literature and his long experience in the field to:

  1. Analyze current employment conditions, assistance practices, and the policy context for working-age adults with disabilities, and
  2. Propose reforms to enhance their educational, training and employment outcomes.

Programs and Practices — Challenges

At the government policy level, federal and provincial/territorial measures fostering employment for people with disabilities are of five main types: income supports, tax measures, labour market measures, protective legislation, and comprehensive legislation. The author describes this system as “a disjointed patchwork of widely varying practices and uneven accessibility, affordability and responsiveness.” This arises from a variety of problems: disability supports with multiple entry points through numerous public, non-profit and business organizations; diverse eligibility and funding rules; numerous assessment and review procedures; and varying levels of responsiveness and venues where assistance can be obtained.

On the ground, there are several different ways people with disabilities are currently integrated into the labour market. These include rudimentary employment preparation in adult day programs; vocational training and support services in facilities operated by charities or business that offer segregated work spaces for disabled people, such as activity centres and sheltered workshops; work experience placements from local employment service agencies; and more integrated jobs via worker cooperatives, social enterprises, self-employment and “supported employment” (meaningful paid work with supports such as specialized equipment or job-coaching assistance).

The author identifies a number of challenges in disability organizations’ delivery of assistance, however, particularly in regard to transition assistance and employment preparation for youth with disabilities. One issue he identifies is that teachers’ and parents’ expectations for youth are set too low, thus stifling opportunity at an early age, which leads to longer term consequences. Another difficulty is that work co-op programs are often not available, or hard to get to by accessible transportation, particularly in rural settings. He also points out that partnerships between school districts, local employers and employment service agencies are underdeveloped. Another issue is that not all community-based employment service providers routinely assist people with disabilities, and not all staff have an adequate understanding of issues pertaining to disabilities and job accommodations. Finally, the quality of labour force placements by these organizations range widely, from unpaid work, to placements with training and support, to full-time paid work.

A contributing problem identified by the author is that Labour Market Agreements for Persons with Disabilities (LMAPDs) tend to focus on individuals and on the supply-side, as well as on enhancing the employability of clients in direct or indirect ways. Less emphasis is placed on the demand-side: the resulting job. Also, LMAPD provincial spending priorities vary across the country, from mental health in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan; to community services, education and employment in Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island; to adults with developmental disabilities in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan.

Moreover, there is a lack of evidence as to the effectiveness of LMAPDs, with but one evaluation conducted of them. Findings from this evaluation include that clients with more severe disabilities; individuals with cognitive impairments, mental illness, multiple disabilities and more recently acknowledged disabilities were not well served because of lack of dedicated service provider agencies; limited emphasis was given to connecting employers with people with disabilities; and little effort to develop and disseminate best practices.

Proposed Policy Framework

To address these problems, the author concludes that the federal government, in collaboration with the provinces and territories, should foster opportunity for persons with disabilities in the labour force by connecting employers with people with disabilities, while supporting employers in providing work accommodations and job-related supports.

Prince highlights New Brunswick as one province where effective transition planning processes are in place. Here, facilitators or planners work with parents and families, high school teachers and local school districts, area employers and potential mentors. The aim is to secure meaningful work experiences and paid employment while the young person with a disability is still in high school.

He concludes by proposing six components for a new policy framework for supporting Canadians with Disabilities, directed at both orders of government:

  1. Renew the Canadian vision on disability and citizenship to make issues of disability, access, inclusion and equality;
  2. Improve transition planning for youth with disabilities;
  3. Expand post-secondary education to meet the significant challenge and opportunity of upskilling Canadians with disabilities;
  4. Foster improvement in workplace practices which will involve reviewing disability management practices in the workplace and improving financial incentives for employees with disabilities and their employers;
  5. Enhance employment services and supports to broaden and deepen the range of employment services and supports available to people with disabilities, including for people with significant impairments; and
  6. Modernize and better coordinate labour market agreements.

This resource would appeal to both practitioners and policy makers seeking to better integrate Canadians with disabilities into the mainstream. It succinctly lays out the current challenges in the design and practice of disability supports across Canada and offers policy and program delivery prescriptions for addressing these problems.