What Employment? What Equity?

Article excerpt


In 1983, the United Nations, with the Canadian government as a signatory, proclaimed the Decade of Disabled Persons.

When, in 1986, Ottawa passed Bill C-62, the Employment Equity Act, Canada's "affirmative action" law for people with disabilities, as well as women, aboriginal peoples, and visible minorities--80 percent of the Canadian population. People with disabilities, rightly, looked forward to better times.

Somehow, in the first year after the bill was passed the number of employed people with disabilities dropped by 380, according to Bill C-62 "progress"reports. Over the next two years, another 900 jobs were lost.

Obviously, Bill C-62 missed the boat. "It's a dismal failure," says Carol McGregor, coordinator of Disabled People for Employment Equity (DPEE), a Toronto-based coalition of about 20 community organizations of people with disabilities. "Bill C-62 has no teeth."


The response of governments to the needs of people with disabilities has been little other than a raised middle finger. People with disabilities are still only about one percent of the workforce, McGregor says, even though 15 percent of Canadians (3.5 million people) are disabled. Their labour-force participation rate is half that of able-bodied people, according to a 1986 Statscan study.

"The disabled community is angry and frustrated," McGregor says. "Initially, after the UN Decade of Disabled Persons was proclaimed, our hope was that thing would improve in all areas. They haven't. And we're getting increasingly militant. You can't keep promising something without delivering the goods."

Because of the sad unemployment conditions, about two-thirds of employable people with disabilities have given up looking for work. Many people with disabilities face tremendous poverty as a result. In 1989, the Canadian Human Rights Commission reported three in five people with disabilities had incomes less than $10,000.


Not surprisingly, women with disabilities are much worse off than men. Women with disabilities earn about 60 percent of the income of able-bodied women (who, of course, earn about 60 percent of what able-bodied men earn). Those who do have jobs are ghettoized. Over 90 percent of employed women with disabilities are clerical workers, according to a recent study by the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH). To compound the misery, most women's services are inaccessible to women with disabilities.

As women are segregated economically, society also finds it easy to deny them personal autonomy or self-determination; in the institutions, Statscan reports, there are three women with disabilities to every man.

The current debate on employment equity has yet to confront the position of people who face double and triple discrimination. This fuels dissension in the already divided fight for economic integration. People in less-marginalized groups may already be working out details of employment equity plans, while others are still vying for inclusion in the debate. "It's divisive, but this is the intent," McGregor says, noting that when employers put together employment equity plans, they often single out one designated group or another, for just this divisive effect. "We're much more powerful when we work together."


It doesn't help that mainstream culture is packed with bizarre notions about the capacity for work of people with disabilities. People with disabilities face psychological probes and job assessments in virtually every interaction with governments or private agencies.

The fight of people with disabilities against social-worker paternalism is often closely linked to their struggle for economic integration, McGregor says. The dominant wisdom often assumes people with disabilities to be incapable of even taking care of themselves, let alone working productively. …