Building Links Between Disabled Persons and the Workforce

February 3, 2014
Valerie Foster

About 700,000 people in BC are characterized as having some kind of disability, and approximately half of these are in the “traditional” working age group of 15 to 64. The good news is that 56% of disabled British Columbians are employed, albeit this is about 20% lower than the share for non-disabled workers. Some 64% of the 150,000 disabled persons who are not in the workforce are precluded from working due to the severity of their limitations.

Those who fit the government’s definition “disabled” are a diverse group with quite varied limitations -- both physical and cognitive. The individualistic accommodations to allow disabled persons to hold down jobs, and the sometimes episodic nature of their ability to work, can be costly for employers. Yet as a society we should do more to tap into this resource and to facilitate the efforts of disabled persons to secure employment. This requires both policy attention and a greater private sector commitment.

The challenges that can arise in employing this workforce are many, but there are some common themes. The top three challenges identified in surveys are the level of education, systemic public policy issues, and stigma concerns.

The Canadian Mental Health Association points to education as a primary barrier to employment for those with disabilities. People with significant cognitive and behavioural limitations tend not to complete high school. Those with physical disabilities may not find gainful employment after finishing high school, which can lead to a “spiral effect” of low incomes, poor housing, weak social networks and, subsequently, a lack of post secondary education. Until recently, disabled persons who did secure positions in the workforce experienced a “claw-back” whereby social assistance was promptly withdrawn – resulting in some employed disabled people being worse off financially than when they were unemployed. Stigma and discrimination continue to make it hard for disabled individuals to find employment in some circumstances.

So what is the provincial government doing to address the disconnect between disabled persons and the workforce?

Minister of Social Development & Social Innovation Don McCrae is working with the Minister’s Council for Employment Accessibility made up of business leaders, senior government officials, citizens with disabilities and private sector disability assistance organizations. The Council created the 2012 Action Plan Framework on solutions and strategies to increase employment and workplace access for people with disabilities. They have identified various challenges to access; the first three noted are lack of employer leadership, inadequate employer incentives (including a lack of an overall business case for hiring people with disabilities), and a poor general understanding of the relevant systemic barriers.

Support for employers has been highlighted as an area that warrants early attention. The Minister’s Council recommended the development of a Presidents’ Network to provide support for employer leadership as well as an Access to Work Fund - a central fund to help employers offset the costs of accommodation.

The Ministry is also engaged in Comprehensive Disability White Paper Consultations that will set the foundation for a major Summit to be held in June 2014. Input to the White Paper can be submitted online to the government, or face to face at meetings in various cities across the province.

The BC government has further redesigned its Income Assistance Programs to ameliorate the seemingly punitive consequences for some disabled people when they find employment. The Employment and Assistance for Persons with Disabilities Act specifically includes a new definition based on a person's ability to carry out daily living activities; the recognition of mental illness as a disability; and the right to participate in the labour force while maintaining the disability designation, which addresses the “claw-back” problem previously mentioned.

Currently, persons with disabilities receive the highest rate of social assistance available in British Columbia.

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