It’s Time To Be Direct . Daring . Bold

Mark Wafer introducing The Opportunities Act – Ottawa, February 5, 2018. 

Welcome to the Inclusion Revolution.

At a time when we are at the threshold of change in the disability world it is imperative that those of us in the advocacy and activism sector push hard. Change is coming in many forms, transportation, housing, education, travel, research and more. Some, of course, with better outcomes than others but the needle is moving in the right direction.

Largely ignored in the past, North America and European countries have enacted policy and legislation directly targeted at the disability community.  Not all of this is working as intended or even helping at all but overall our governments are recognizing that the disability community is a massive, educated, connected force to be reckoned with. Campaigns are under way to change societal attitudes, the gap between so called “us and them” is narrowing ( a term only non disabled people use) but the one area where there is still much work to do is in employment for people with disabilities. Employment being the single most important aspect of any individuals life. With a paycheque one lives a full life, one gets to contribute and one has meaning and purpose in life. It’s about dignity.

Yes, we are well ahead of ten years ago but the statistics show that despite all legislative , National, International and grassroots initiatives the participation rates for people with disabilities in the workplace have not changed in 40 years. It’s difficult to imagine that the same percentage of North Americans with disabilities were working in 1970 as there are today.

As I have said for years the reason for low participation rates is directly related to the attitude of employers. Employers buy into every stereotype imaginable simply as a result of fear of the unknown. Despite the fact more than half of citizens in developed nations are directly affected by disability, these age old stereotypes still exist. These barriers to inclusion in real jobs for real pay are attitudinal. Attitude therefore being the greatest barrier a person with a disability faces when trying to get into the workforce.

The statistics are troubling. StatsCan indicates that 54% of Canadians with disabilities are not working however this data doesn’t include anyone without marketplace attachment. Today there are over 500,000 Canadian graduates from the past five years with disabilities who have never worked a single day. Of those,  270,000 have a post secondary education. Without working at least one day, these individuals are not included in official statistics therefore the real unemployment number, anecdotally is closer to 70%. Comparing this to figures released during the Great Depression, Canada had a 24% unemployment rate in 1933, the peak of the depression. At 70% unemployment today Canadians with disabilities live a perpetual depression.

The challenge for us in the advocacy world is to break down these attitudinal barriers in the private sector. When we changed the narrative about 15 years ago from focusing on the individual to focusing on how a business benefits from inclusion we started to get traction. Today this is the only approach that works. In the past the approach to business was based on legislative compliance and/or a level of altruism. Any agency using that approach today will have zero success.

There is however one other huge challenge. System barriers that have being created over the past decades by our governments, particularly our Provincial governments in Canada. I am referring here to policies that are designed to punish a worker with a disability by taxing them at a higher income tax rate than a non disabled worker doing the exact same job in the same company. It’s hard to imagine that this is the case but it is true for every single Canadian Province. For the most part these are unintended consequences of poor policy or updates and amendments to existing policy without looking at potential road blocks and traps in the system.

There are two main issues. The first is that a person with a disability, receiving income supports from his/her Province has those benefits clawed back when they finally enter the workforce. They bravely rise above the fear of losing that security safety net and beat all odds to land a job, any job and most likely not the one they are educated for. Quite rightly once they begin to earn a regular salary the employment benefits should end but the policies of our Provinces clawback the benefits so dramatically that the worker can be worst off than when they were unemployed. This is especially so for Alberta.

Secondly , a worker ending their history with employment supports would typically require some continued attachment to the system, perhaps in the area of health benefits if the employer doesn’t provide them or if the employers health benefits are inferior to those provided by the Government. Due to this attachment, a worker with a disability could now have an income tax rate higher than a millionaire. This is unfair and draconian yet every Province is guilty of participating in these practices.

There is more. Foolish and absent minded policy can also ruin the employment of those who have exceptional needs or requirements of Government services. My favourite example being a man who a few years ago was working in my business as head of logistics. He worked with us for 11 years and was without question my best employee. He has two significant disabilities one of which required daily medication. In 2013 the Ontario Government approved a new drug that had an increased effectiveness for that condition. The drug cost $5,000 per month and our benefits package would not cover it. The Government did indeed cover the cost but on one condition. My best employee had to resign, go back on Income supports, relinquish his role as a tax payer and become a burden to the system.

As we see more and more employers stepping up and coming forward, realizing that the disability community is a massive untapped labour pool, we can’t lose sight of the fact system wide barriers exist across the country. For that reason I am proud to announce that along with MP Pierre Poilievre, our Shadow cabinet Finance Critic we have launched the Opportunities Act.

This act , when legislated will provide guidance and expectations to the Provinces in the area of taxation and clawbacks. Over a five year period the goal will be even and fair taxation and a fairer clawback of employment benefits. No longer will Canadians with disabilities have to fear that if they finally get a job that they will be financially worse off. Hard work will be rewarded just as it is for workers without disabilities.

The Act was tabled yesterday in the House of Commons and will receive its first reading in March. In all Provinces, social service spending is paid for by the Federal Government through Federal/Provincial transfer payments. Although it is never the intention of the Federal Government to micromanage Provincial government regulations, the Federal  Government  can and should set guidelines and expected outcomes as well as where necessary , call out poor behaviour and poor rules and regulations that hurt Canadians with disabilities.

Yes change is coming and it is up to all of us to keep pushing. The conversations are now mainstream, it’s time to be direct, daring and Bold.

– Mark Wafer

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