Employment Equity for the Disabled in Canada

Article excerpt

Carl Raskin*

Affirmative action programmes exist in many countries and are instituted to help redress imbalances arising from discrimination against a wide range of population groups. This article will focus on such programmes for the disabled in Canada's workforce. Known as quota schemes, employment equity programmes, or affirmative action measures, depending upon the country, the central element in such initiatives is that they call for the use of specially designed positive measures to increase the workforce participation and/or representation of persons with disabilities, often by reserving a certain number of jobs in an enterprise for such individuals. All these schemes have increased employment for disabled persons as their goal, but they do not operate in the same manner. How the various programmes function depends upon national statutes or practice. In Germany, for example, the is a quota scheme mandating that a specific percentage of an enterprise's labour force be composed of disabled persons. If the quota is not met, the enterprise is fined, the fines usually going into a public fund to provide disabled workers with workplace facilities, training, salary subsidies, and the like.

In Canada, there is no quota scheme as such. Rather, instead of mandating a specific percentage, the Canadian programme, known as "employment equity" (but generally referred to in this article as "affirmative action" for clarity's sake), seeks to achieve an "equitable" structure of employment that includes, in any given enterprise and occupational category, a percentage of disabled persons equal to the percentage of available and qualified disabled persons in the general population. Enterprises are required to report the overall percentage of disabled persons employed as well as the percentage in specific occupational categories. If they are below what labour force data show to be available, the offending organization may be made the subject of a formal complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

It will be noted that such a policy is different from one merely requiring enterprises not to discriminate against individual disabled persons seeking employment: it aims, by affirmative action, to improve the employment prospects of a designated category of persons. In Canada, the designated categories are in fact four: visible minorities, women, native (aboriginal) Canadians and disabled persons.

Whether a quota or a reporting approach is used, occupational affirmative action programmes for disabled persons have traditionally placed the emphasis on the total numbers employed, without reference to their equitable distribution and advancement within an organization, which are deemed to come about automatically once employment is ensured. All too often, however, that is not the case and disabled persons tend to cluster in certain occupations and occupational groupings.

In the light of that situation the present article sets out to describe a model of affirmative action which, while recognizing the importance of a "critical mass" of overall employment, attempts to deal with the problem of occupational clustering by placing the emphasis on targeting specific occupational categories. The model seeks to identify "able-body dominated" and "non-able-body dominated" occupations in a manner similar to the way "traditional" and "non-traditional" job groupings are categorized for women.

This article first provides indications of the extent of disability in Canada and gives a brief account of the events that led up to the current legislation which is described. The model is then presented and explained.


The Canadian Health and Activity Limitation Survey (HALS) (1991) covers persons who, as a result of a disability, are physically impaired in some aspect of their daily lives; however, it does not consider as disabled adults those who, by using a technical aid, can overcome their limitation. …