THE BLOG

Does a Degree Matter Less if You're in a Wheelchair?

05/30/2012 12:19 EDT | Updated 07/30/2012 05:12 EDT

We hear from employers that there will not be enough people with the "right" skills needed to fill the thousands of jobs that will be created as a result from the retirement of the baby boomer generation, or those leaving the workforce for a variety of reasons. We also hear about the tremendous need for temporary workers from outside Canada to fill positions that cannot be completed by Canadians. These problems are all real, however, there is a solution that is staring us straight in the face, but we continually ignore it because, well, that is what we have always done things.

Part of the solution can be found by looking at the thousands of people with disabilities in the country.

For the most part, the education system has done its job. Beginning at the elementary and secondary level, students with disabilities have been given access to support and services that have allowed them, not only to participate in the education process, but to increasingly be successful. Governments and advocacy groups have ensured that our public system is accessible, and provides opportunities for students with disabilities to graduate from our secondary schools in record numbers.

As a result of secondary school success, students with disabilities are moving into our post-secondary system in record numbers. According to recent statistics from the Ontario Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities, there were over 43,000 students with disabilities registered in the post-secondary system in Ontario. Additionally, 14 per cent of the total enrolments in Ontario colleges were students with disabilities in the 2010/2011 academic year. This change in the enrolment of students with disabilities has grown at double digits in many institutions over the last decade.

Unfortunately, students and people with disabilities are still facing many barriers as they transition into the workforce. These barriers are preventing many qualified people with disabilities from getting the jobs they want. Additionally, through tuition fees and subsidies from taxpayers, thousands of dollars have been spent preparing students with disabilities to take roles as machinists, social workers, computer analysts and nurses in our society, but statistics show that educational success is not necessarily meeting with workplace success. According to Statistics Canada, the disabled, when compared to similarly prepared people without disabilities, are significantly under-represented in the workforce. As an example, 75 per cent of people without disabilities were employed in Canada, however only 51 per cent of people with disabilities were employed, according to a survey from Statistics Canada.

So how we begin to address this gap? To some extent, it is representative of the attitude of many of those in the workplace that I see as acting as gatekeepers to the world of work for the disabled. This includes employers from both the private and public sector, as well as labour organizations that represent thousands of workers in professional bodies and licensing organizations that govern entry into various careers and trades. Here are three areas to focus on:

Many the professional bodies require licensing exams as part of the entry into a profession. These tests require accommodations so that students with disabilities can compete on a level playing field so that they can adequately demonstrate their knowledge and skills. While some bodies do post their accommodation practices, they either make those practices difficult to access, or so onerous that students end up writing their exams without accommodations and subsequently fail. Additionally, along with entry exams, licensing bodies prepare competency requirements that are associated with entry to practice criteria. This involves developing certain standards related to cognitive, physical and emotional demands of specific professional roles or trades, for example, nurses, engineers, teachers, and carpenters etc. However, these competency requirements are not necessarily developed in consultation with people with disabilities, so by their very nature they end up being more exclusive than inclusive. I would call on the professional bodies, regulatory agencies and organizations to consult more widely so that they may garner a better understanding of the large scope of competencies, and the way in which the disabled can meet those requirements so they can enter valued professions in our society.

In terms of the labour movement, I would suggest that they have a role in determining both the scope and nature of work performed by members associated with unions. However, roles need to be modified to help individuals with disabilities to work in organizations that are significantly made up of union members governed by a collective agreement. Modifying roles and providing flexibility will allow those people with disabilities to access employment in "union shops." I would call on labour organizations to work with employers in terms of analyzing ways in which jobs can be altered so that they fit within the confines of various collective agreements to ensure access to employment for people with disabilities. This may include looking at positions through the lens of modifying hours of work, or examining at how benefits are allotted to members of unions.

In terms of employers and businesses, I would encourage not only the development of programs that encourage hiring of people with disabilities, but an examination of workplaces to ensure the accessibility and opportunity for people with disabilities is maximized. I am not suggesting a quota or affirmative action policy. However, I would ask employers look at and examine their hiring practices so they do not tacitly, or even overtly, discourage people with disabilities.

Canada is leading the world in terms of access and attainment of post-secondary education. In fact, it is estimated that up to 70 per cent of all new jobs will require some form of education beyond secondary school. Our colleges and universities have stepped up to ensure that students with disabilities can participate and graduate with the skills required to benefit our society. It is now up to our employers, labour unions and professional regulatory bodies to work together to ensure that the human capital that has been developed as result of taxpayer and student investment in higher education is not wasted.