Workplace Accommodation and Audit-Based Evaluation Process for Compliance with the Employment Equity Act: Inclusionary Practices That Exclude-An Institutional Ethnography

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As stipulated in the Department of Justice Canada's (1995) Employment Equity Act (EEA), federal government departments and agencies are required to recruit and retain persons with disabilities in numbers proportional to their availability in the labour market. Through its audit-based evaluations for compliance with the EEA, auditors working with the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) verify that government departments and agencies meet this and other legislative requirements, including the accommodation of persons hired with disabilities. This paper explicates how the social organization of workplace accommodation and compliance--processes that were developed to promote inclusion--are exclusionary.

Prior to 1999, a person in a wheelchair who was unable to climb up a set of stairs to get to her/his workplace was compelled to ask for a ramp. That ramp was perceived as the fix or cure required by the person in a wheelchair and is commonly referred to as workplace accommodation. After the Meiorin (2) Supreme Court of Canada ruling of 1999, accommodation was refocused from fixing the individual's problem to transforming our workplaces to meet the needs of all types of workers from the outset.

In 2002, the Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada, the umbrella organization for 74 or so federal government departments and agencies, released a policy which reflected the outcome of the Meiorin case: it treated accommodation as a method of organizational transformation.

Since most federal departments and agencies have now been found to be in compliance (Michel Lefebvre, personal communication, December 13, 2010) (3) with the EEA, there should be a concomitant reduction in the number of human rights complaints based on the prohibited ground of disability. However, according to the Commission's annual reports for the period 1994-2004, there has been a 64% increase in the number of complaints based on disability in the five-year period after Meiorin compared to the five-year period prior to it. The bases for these complaints include such things as differential treatment, failure to accommodate, refusal to hire, and termination of employment. How could this be happening? It is an issue which we discuss amongst ourselves particularly at conferences like the ACCESS conference for disabled federal public servants, hosted tri-annually by the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Michael Oliver (1992) would argue that academic research on disability often contributes to these types of discrimination, which many of us who work for the federal public service continue to experience in our everyday working lives. Furthermore, he writes that researchers in the field of disability studies need to change the social relations of their research and adopt an emancipatory research paradigm. This paper is, in part, my response to Oliver's call for emancipatory research.

I used for my research an emancipatory method of investigation called institutional ethnography (IE). IE was developed by Canadian sociologist Dorothy E. Smith (1987, 1990a, 1990b, 2005) in the mid1980s as an alternative sociology for people who are marginalized. This paper was carved from the experiences of one of the 38 persons with disabilities I used for my doctoral studies (Deveau 2008) on workplace accommodation for federal public servants with disabilities. I shall refer to this person as Matt.

What distinguishes this study from the fine work done on workplace accommodation by Harlan and Robert (1998) and Gibson and Lindberg (2007) is that my research is not so much about the particular challenges encountered by a disabled worker in seeking her/his accommodation at the local level, but on how those challenges are hooked into textually mediated work processes originating at the macro level. In fact, by using a person's experience at the local level as a door through which powerful translocal forces can be mapped, IE bridges the divide sociologists have created between the micro and macro (Campbell 2003; Smith 1987:99). …


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