A labour shortage? Please tell me more

Recently my local newspaper published a three part series highlighting the immediate and future labour shortages in our region. Our city, close to the city of Toronto has a very significant labour shortage, similar in many ways to the national labour shortage and it’s here to stay. 

The labour shortage is not only as a result of the pandemic. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke of future labour shortages as far back as 2010. In one speech he mentioned that Canada would have a shortage of one million workers by the year 2025, he was right. In fact we are already there.  The pandemic has of course made things worse but we have been on this journey for a long time. For many employers the answer has been to engage the Temporary Foreign Workers program. An effective but costly remedy, logistically challenging and not available to all sectors in all jurisdictions. 
The newspaper series missed the opportunity to highlight one of the most obvious and most viable solutions, the inclusion of Canada’s largest minority group, the disabled. 

When I worked with the late Jim Flaherty, arguably Canada’s best Finance Minister, he mentioned many times that the disabled had to be included In all employment opportunities, that the TFWP was a solution but the overarching solution must include the disabled. Working with Jim resulted in solutions, some of which changed the narrative, we miss his straightforward talk, we could use some of that today. 

According to StatsCan the majority of our disabled citizens are not working. Those stats however are under representative since those without marketplace attachment are not included in unemployment numbers. Today in Canada there are 550,000 graduates from the past five years with disabilities, 270,000 of whom have post secondary diplomas and degrees. Although some grads have found work, this cohort of 550,000 have not worked a single day and therefore have no marketplace attachment. It is estimated therefore that the real unemployment rate for the disabled could be as high as 70% yet counterintuitively we have massive unemployment of one demographic while experiencing a massive labour shortage. 

The disabled community are educated, skilled, motivated, innovative and ready to go. 

It is time for the media to make this clear. A three part series on our labour shortage without any mention of the ridiculously high unemployment rate of the disabled serves no one at all. 

The “E” is for Equity

Many of us in the DEI space receive pushback from those who believe that working to achieve equity is actually a negative thing. 

The “E” in DEI is equity. It is not Equality.  This is usually where the problem begins.  

Straight, white, able-bodied males (the most privileged of us all) have a difficult time understanding the difference. For some of them, there is a belief that those from marginalized communities simply need equal opportunities. For them, the vastly different lived experience of those individuals are irrelevant. 

Recently I received an email from a white straight male accusing me of spreading hate and racism simply by working towards equity for those marginalized groups. This is not unusual and the writer is not an outlier. There is enough of such sentiment out there that it will take a big effort to overcome. 

Equality means that people are treated the exact same way regardless of that individuals needs. This favours the dominant domain for obvious reasons. For example a wheelchair user doesn’t have the same outcome if faced with a set of stairs. Equity on the other hand means that everyone is provided with what they need to succeed. In the case of the wheelchair user, a ramp. 

Those who argue against this usually hold the most privilege. They are scared, scared that more rights for others means less rights for them. 

It’s not a pie, it’s not a pizza. More rights for the marginalized does not mean less rights for you. 

Equality won’t get us anywhere. “We are an equal opportunity employer” is a sign often displayed with job postings. It is one of the reasons the unemployment rate for the disabled is 50-70%. If a deaf or blind person has “equal” rights, they basically have no chance at all. 

The Demise of the Sheltered Workshop Model

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December 1st 2015 I was walking towards the House of Parliament in Whitehall, London to listen to a debate on the distribution of funding for Autism programs in the U.K. when my phone rang.

It was Moira Welsh, an investigative journalist from the Toronto Star whom I had been working with for over a year on the subject of Ontario’s Sheltered Workshops. A Sheltered Workshop is a manufacturing or packaging business staffed by “workers” who are intellectually challenged. Moira had written an expose on these locations with the first post published a few days prior to this phone call. The second was published November 30th, the day before the phone call. There were other posts ready to publish.

For years I and many others had fought hard to close down these dreadful entities. Many in society wrongly believe that these places are doing good work, that it is a safe place for these individuals to go to, to socialize and to earn some money.

The reality is very different. First, none of these workers in the 45 or so large workshops in the Province earn anything at all. Perhaps in some cases they may earn a stipend, perhaps a movie pass after a weeks work. Secondly, the only people working at these shops are those with intellectual disabilities, secluded from the rest of society. These workshops are often connected to or associated with social service agencies such as Goodwill, Community Living, the Salvation Army and others therefore they receive funding through the Ministry of Community and Social Services.

Seclusion by design is oppression.

Despite our work to challenge various governments to change course, close down the model and get these individuals into real jobs, nothing happened until that phone call from Moira. Moira says to me, “Mark are you sitting down?” “the Government has caved, the sheltered workshop model is dead”

This happened as a result of the Stars expose.

The Minister responsible for this decision was Helena Jaczek, Minister of Community and Social Services. It was a brave decision indeed because many non-disabled people relied on the sheltered workshops for their income, managing the shops, while parents of adult children working in the shops did not at first understand what would happen to their sons and daughters. There was fear and that of course was understandable.

Sheltered workshops have often been depicted as sophisticated slavery. Very few countries in the world allow them to exist, Canada has been ridiculed by European countries for continuing to use this model. The workshops were originally created after World War II to rehabilitate injured soldiers so they could return to work. In the late 70’s someone came up with the idea that this would work also for those with disabilities. Perhaps it would have been if the idea was a stepping stone to real work for real pay but that rarely happens.

One may wonder how it is possible that workers can earn less than minimum wage in Canada. The Employment Standards Act has a carve out that allows a sheltered workshop to pay by piece work. The shop however determines the production goal and often that goal is beyond the means of even non-disabled workers. In fact even with Bill 148 in place in Ontario with a new minimum wage of $14 per hour, sheltered workshops still can continue to pay workers whatever they wish.

The reason I am writing about this today is because this week a group of parents and support workers from Guelph traveled to Queens Park to protest the closing of the workshops. These parents are desperate however they are misguided.  One parent pointed out that her son enjoyed going to work and socializing with others. Of course he does, he knows no other normal, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.  Social media for the most part supported these parents because as I said previously society doesn’t typically understand the damage these workshops are doing.

The government gave the workshops a soft deadline of five years to transition. From my perspective more than half the workers in a sheltered workshop are employable in real jobs for real pay in the private sector. The Government did not legislate the end of the model and that in my opinion was a mistake because some shops have gone underground, rebranded as gathering spots with no programs or strategies while some have approached private sector donors so that they can continue.

For those who can’t work in real jobs, innovative programs need to be designed. Life skills programs in an inclusive setting where these individuals are interacting every day with people who are not disabled.

People with intellectual disabilities reach their full potential in the workplace while working with those without disabilities. They mimic or try to be like those around them. If they are in a workshop with other people like them, the set the bar extremely low, in a real job they try to emulate those who are so called typically normal. Only then can a worker with an intellectual disability be the best they can be.

Although I certainly feel the frustration and fear of the families who traveled to Queens Park this week, a return to this dreadful model must never happen. The transition is under way, it’s not easy but it is entirely necessary so that thousands of Ontarian’s with intellectual disabilities can live a life where they are independent, supporting themselves and living life to its fullest. Anything less is unacceptable.

Be Direct, Be Daring, Be Bold


The Increasing Demographic of Disability

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According to London’s Financial Times, the global impact of disability on humanity is growing rapidly.  Estimates from the International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests 1B people worldwide currently have disabilities, 800M of those being of working age. Four fifths of those are in developing nations with 200M being adults with significant disabilities or difficulties in functioning.

These numbers are about to explode. People are living longer and chronic conditions such as Diabetes are on the rise. As well conditions developed at birth along with mental health disabilities discovered later in life either increase or become more difficult to manage with age.

The UN backed global burden on disease study uses a calculation of years lived with disability that shows three quarters of medical conditions would benefit from rehabilitation support. This is limited even in developed nations.

My good friend, Susan Scott Parker CEO of the UK based International Forum on Disability says one of three adults aged 50-65 will have a disability. “It’s simply an inevitable part of what it means to be human.”

There are many organizations around the world doing remarkable work to ensure those belonging to or joining this growing demographic are cared for with dignity, are represented in society and are ensuring barriers are broken down. Although technology has made significant changes to the lives of those with disabilities, technology also creates its own barriers.

The one area where a break through has still not materialized is in employment. Accessibility has increased exponentially over the past ten years yet even employers who create fully accessible workplaces are still largely reluctant to staff those workplaces with workers who have disabilities. An example of systemic barriers around technology is with online recruitment practices.

An employer would not invite a wheelchair user to a job interview on the second floor of a building with no elevator and expect the candidate to climb the stairs. This would be outrageous however it is equally outrageous that an employer uses outdated, inaccessible online recruitment software that blocks those with low vision, dyslexia and other types of disabilities. In fact one of the most popular online recruitment software programs out there today blocks those with the aforementioned disabilities. This is humiliating but it also prevents a recruiter from hiring some potentially amazing talent.

The U.S. Department of Labour announced its 25th straight month of increased labour force increases for Americans with disabilities in April however, America is still not back to its pre-2008, pre-recession participation rates. Cause for celebration and alarm at the same time.

As the demographic increases, employment is going to become a critical factor in ensuring this massive minority group live full contributive lives. Our Governments must set the tone and provide significant guidance to the private sector. The global economic burden will be unsustainable if the current lack of workplace participation remains as it is today as we quickly move to a disability rate of one in five.

Note : Mark Wafer will co-moderate a leaders debate on accessibility and inclusion at Ryerson University May 16th along with Canadian Press reporter Michelle MacQuigge.  This event will be live streamed, please check Ryerson website for details.

To Disclose or Not to Disclose

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A question I am asked quite often from the disability community is “should I disclose my disability” and if so, when is it best to do so?

It is important to disclose at some part of the onboarding journey otherwise the employer may not realize that any difficulty one might have with a particular task when related to a disability. With 70% of disabilities being non-visible, most employers will not know that a new hire may be disabled.

It is also important to know how to disclose. One must be an expert on their disability and own it. See it as a benefit to who they are, show that they see the world in a different way and can complete tasks with a different approach; often better than someone without a disability.

Studies show that self-identifying early in the hiring process leads to a lack of continuation in the game. Stating a disability on a cover letter or on a resume is simply a red flag for the recruiter who has not met with the candidate yet and sees little by way of contribution. The recruiter most often is buying into age-old stereotypes, myths and misperceptions. A French study in 2014 showed that self-identifying in the first interview gave the candidate a 7% chance of a second interview. According to caseinterview.com the average percentage of candidates with no known disability who get a second interview is at least twice that number and often higher.

Therefore early disclosure leads to poor outcomes.

Those who have obvious disabilities have no choice other than to discuss their disability at the beginning of the process and this is where it is important to know how to disclose. First, the candidate should do their homework and study the company they are applying at. Do they have a track record of inclusion?  Are they known to be an accessible business? Do they market to the disability community? Is their advertising inclusive and so on? When in the interview it is important to discuss this. Secondly a candidate must go to the interview armed with all the positive statistics that make up the business case for hiring a worker who has a disability: likely to have higher productivity, stay longer (5 times longer) , work in a more safe manner, lower absenteeism, greater innovative thinking and much more. All candidates have to sell themselves in a job interview but those with disabilities have that added responsibility to sell the benefits of hiring them over someone who does not have a disability.

Is that fair? No, but when done properly it can be rather empowering. The recruiter can learn a lot in a 20-minute interview.

What must be avoided is a conversation about what the candidate cannot do. A recruiter who is new to inclusion doesn’t know what they don’t know so may ask questions in a negative view. It is up to the candidate to turn this around, perhaps responding with a piece of data such as “did you know absenteeism for workers with disabilities is 85% lower than workers without”

So where do I suggest a candidate self identify and disclose? As late as possible and preferably once an offer of employment has been made

Be direct. Be daring. Be bold.

Why the Word “Disability” Matters

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People First Language is described by Wikipedia as ‘a type of linguistic description in English to avoid perceived and subconscious dehumanizations when discussing people with disabilities’. It is now an accepted type of disability etiquette.

Person First Language has become the norm.  Instead of saying “disabled person”, the supposed correct lexicon is “person with a disability”. Instead of “deaf guy”, it’s a “man with a hearing disability”.

Problem is, that’s all bullshit.

Person First Language was created by those who do not have disabilities. It was created by workers in the disability field, employees of agencies, and indeed, moms and dads who thought it would be a better way to describe their children’s disability. As a result however they removed a vitally important piece of that individuals psyche. It also made that individual less. It reduced the individuals true identity.

Few of us with disabilities actually identify only as disabled. We are doctors, lawyers, retail workers, politicians and more. However we have a disability and although the disability doesn’t define us it does define an important part of who we are.

Person First Language morphed into something even more insidious. Changing the word “disability” into a myriad of cringe-worthy descriptions. “Differently abled” and my personal favourite, “handi-capable”. These descriptions serve one purpose, to help the non-disabled individual feel better about themselves while talking about those with disabilities

The word “disabled” isn’t a negative description. It is in fact an extremely important word that allows a disabled person to own their disability, it creates confidence and is damn empowering.

Those with disabilities often lack confidence and self esteem. That’s natural. However we make this worse and devalue that individuals worth by changing how we describe them. We also risk the fact that labels stick. Describing someone as handi-capable diminishes that Individuals worth and value to a very low level. You can’t own it and feel empowered when someone describes you with that term. You can’t be seen as a contributor to society with that descriptive terminology.

Person First Language is also responsible for some disability groups needless journey into bizarre descriptive terms within their own disability group. For example, in the deaf community (I am prepared for some backlash here) we have big “D” deaf, small “d” deaf, “oral deaf” , “late deafened” “hard of hearing ” and more.

There is nothing inherently wrong with those descriptions on the condition that the individuals align themselves with it. I find the term “hard of hearing ” ridiculous.  Terry Fox wasn’t hard of walking. He was disabled and he damn well owned it.

I identify as deaf but many in the deaf community argue with me that I am hard of hearing. This is where the problem lies. It’s their insecurity around wording, not mine. I can’t hear shit, I’m deaf plain and simple.

The time has come to take back what is rightfully ours, the word disabled. We identify as we see fit and those who prefer People First Language should carry on. Those without disabilities need to respect an individual’s decision on how they wish to be identified.

For me, I’m deaf and I am disabled. Feels mighty empowering

Say the word and say it loud

Be direct, be daring and be BOLD.

Increased Employment Statistics for People with Disabilities

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The numbers are in for 2016 and it’s good news. More Americans with disabilities are working today than at any time in the past.

Canadian participation rates are increasing too but we do not yet have statistical ratings currently used by the US government. We should have one, but a ranking system would jolt those Provinces who lag behind to do more around inclusion.

Anecdotally however we know more Canadians with disabilities are at work in real jobs for real pay compared to only two years ago. The attitudes of many employers have changed. Some large corporations such as TD Bank, RBC, Sodexo, Loblaws and others see inclusion as part of their cultural strategy. This is what we have been preaching for years and the results show evidence of a shift in thinking.

SMB’s are also jumping on the inclusion bandwagon. Some “get it” and see the obvious economic benefits while others see the disability community as a huge untapped labour force in areas where few workers exist. There are many such areas across Canada where labour shortages are dire.

There are, however, too many top brands in Canada who are either still in the infancy stage of Inclusion or it’s not on their radar at all. Some of those names would surprise you, as every Canadian knows them. It is difficult to imagine that in 2018 this would be the case.  Those companies are in trouble; brand culture that isn’t inclusive is a cultural journey to oblivion. Those brands will cease to exist unless they embrace real inclusion.  Some may scoff at such a comment but let me be clear, any corporation not embracing inclusion of people with disabilities in real jobs for real pay, not including workers with disabilities in management and executive roles and failing to include individuals with disabilities on board of director positions will struggle to remain competitive and for some, will fail completely.

While we wait for the Federal Accessibility Act, Ontario continues down its path of creating one good piece of legislation that helps people with disabilities only to enact another piece of legislation that does the exact opposite. Perhaps that’s a lack of communication or it’s a case of pandering for votes, I will leave that up to you to decide.

Meanwhile the US is reporting remarkable numbers. I have been hard on the US government for a long time now so I am happy to provide props where props are due. The employment gap in the US is narrowing (dis/non dis employment) meaning some States are becoming more inclusive.

340,000 more Americans with disabilities found work in 2016. That’s up from 87,000 in 2015. This is transformational change. Companies like JP Morgan Chase, Pepsi, SAP, EY, UPS, IBM, Starbucks and Walgreens lead the way in various forms with Walgreens of course being the clear champion of inclusion world wide. Others are coming along such as Microsoft, Cisco and McDonalds, slowly at the moment but gathering momentum.

States and Provinces can’t make jobs appear but each jurisdiction is responsible for ensuring that employment for workers with disabilities is made easier by removing systemic barriers most often found within government itself.

North Dakota once again leads the way with 54% of its citizens of working age with disabilities, in the workforce. Once again however West Virginia is last with only 27.4% of its people with disabilities working.  Overall the employment gap is 35% vs 77% for non-disabled. Still awful but better that previous years.

Rounding out the top ten States with employment at over 40% for the disability community is South Dakota, Minnesota, Alaska, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Iowa and Kansas.

Much of this change has come about because of the hard work of organizations such as Employment first and school to work transitional programs. These programs of transition and training are seeing a 78% success rate in landing real jobs for real pay. There are now 300 such programs in 46 States.

Although this is transformational, there are still intersectional gaps that the US has to address such as race. African Americans with disabilities have a much lower employment rate at only 27% and Hispanics also are lower than average. Canada faces its own intersectional issue, our indigenous people with disabilities have employment prospects much lower than the norm.

See the report for yourself and see where your State ranked. If you are at the top, well done and keep pushing. If your State has work to do, be DIRECT, DARING and BOLD.

Inclusion in The Sunshine State

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Miami, Florida has more car washes than most other States. There are numerous variations, from coin-operated, full-service and even those with restaurants and entertainment. But one full-service car wash stands out in this competitive landscape, Rising Tide Car Wash in Margate, a suburb of Miami.

Rising Tide has two locations. What makes this business different to all other car washes in the State is that owner and co-founder Tom D’eri decided from day one in 2012 to be a fully inclusive employer. Rising Tides two locations employ 50-60 workers, of those about 40 are on the Autism spectrum.

I recently had the chance to visit with Tom and his crew at one of their locations while on a visit to Miami. Apart from the fact that Rising Tide is probably the cleanest and brightest car wash I have seen, the enthusiasm of the workers, their desire to be perfectionists and their productivity was obvious without having to look at data or sales/transaction scores. Customers love coming back to Rising Tide. They know their pride and joy will be cleaned one way only, with perfection. Apart from that, more than half of those customers are directly effected by disability, they either have one or they have a loved one at home with a disability. In Canada that number is 53%. This, along with an excellent product is what brings Rising Tides customers back again and again.

The average customer service index for a car wash in Florida is typically at 68%. Anything over that means the business is exceeding standards. At Rising Tide, that number is 91%. Once again, proof that there are clear economic benefits from being inclusive.

Although, Tom is well aware of the economic benefits of inclusion. Lower turnover, higher productivity, safer workforce and more. His passion is based more on how inclusion shapes the skills of his non-disabled workers. He simply has a better management team. This is a response I hear often from companies that have built capacity with workers who have a disability. Tom’s managers and non-disabled workers have become better people managers; they see employer engagement through a completely different lens than they might have in the past.

My visit to Rising Tide coincided with the tragic school shooting two days earlier only blocks from the car wash. Four of Tom’s workers were in that school and escaped without harm but some of their classmates didn’t. These workers would not take time off and insisted on working their shift despite the very recent events. This shows once again how incredibly important work is to people with disabilities, including those who are very challenged. Work should always be expected as young people grow up, mom and dad work and so do older siblings so the discussion has to be focused on the fact that the child with disabilities will work also.

Tom does have some concerns with State and Federal laws and policies that financially hurt pwd’s as they come off of benefits and gain meaningful and competitively paid salaries. Apparently the clawbacks and excess income tax is an issue in Florida as much as it is in all Canadian Provinces. Bill C-395 will challenge the Provinces on this as I mentioned in my last blog posting.

When you are in the Miami area, visit Rising Tide and say hello to Tom and his fantastic team. It will make your day and your car will shine like it did when you first bought it.

Here is a short video on Rising Tide.

While in Miami I decided to pay a visit to a different initiative. This one is “Piece of Cake Bakers”, a training program operated by Robin Matusow a native Miamian. Robin created this program for students graduating from high school who have disabilities and no marketable skills. Typically Florida school boards do not provide hands on training for any sort of skills during high school for students with cognitive disabilities. This means there is a hard stop upon graduation. This is not a Florida only problem. We have similar issues at home.

This program is designed to enable students to gain basic industry skills. Students participate in employment skills training and vocational counseling. Most importantly, there is a focus on work related behaviours which is missing In The school system both in Florida and in Canada.

What makes Piece of Cake different to other training programs is that Robin has partnered with the department of education in Miami-Dade County to ensure graduates of the bakers training program receive a diploma from the department of education that lists the skills this individual has attained. This is far more powerful to an employer than a certificate from a local training program.

Here is a video from Piece of Cake

While speaking of Florida and the awful events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas

high school , it’s important for all of us to understand that mental illness and Autism is NOT the cause of or a contributing factor to the shooting epidemic in the United States. Not only has President Trump insisted that this is a mental health epidemic, the shooters lawyers have blamed the shooting on Autism. This is a complete disgrace because report after report has shown that neither condition is ever a causal ingredient to mass shootings.

The problem is and only is the prevalence of guns and ammunition, the culture of believing the second amendment is sacrosanct and an irrational fear that everyone is in imminent danger.

The answer to the problem is gun control and not a further increase in the stigma of mental health or further alienating those with Autism. The problem with addressing this issue rests with Americas political leaders including the President of the United Stares.

President Trump however received over $30m in campaign donations from the NRA.

That’s the problem right there. Real, courageous leadership vs bought leadership.




Audism – What it’s Like Being Deaf in a Hearing World

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What is Audism?  What is it like being deaf in a hearing world?

Audism is based on the attitude that one is somehow of more value based on their ability to hear. Audism is where a Hearing person feels that life as a deaf person is not valued, is futile or miserable. Audism is having a negative stigma towards anyone who does not hear.

In other words , Audism is discrimination against the deaf

Internalized attitudes toward the deaf that are systemic are known as Dysconscious Audism.

So how are these systemic barriers to inclusion practiced in a hearing world? Society as a whole is guilty in some way, shape or form. As a deaf person myself I face Audism all day long. Audism is practiced by business, government, retailers, public sector workers, banks, in fact Audism is practiced by just about everyone at some point in time

Let me explain.

In the morning I turn on the news. The newsfeed is captioned by an automatic system perhaps Google. Google captures at best, 60% of the spoken word. The fact the newsfeed feels that’s ok is audism. Imagine if hearing people only heard 60% of what was said on that broadcast, the station would be vilified.

Next I start my car to go to work and it’s not cooperating. I have to call road-side assistance. Since I can’t use a phone I have two choices. Look up the email address for roadside assistance or text my message using the road-side assistance number. That text bounces back because their system doesn’t accept text. That’s ok, I will check for an email. Nope, no email. That’s Audism

Then I have to discuss an overcharge on a bill I received for a toll highway. No email address, no text , only a phone number. So I have to get someone else to call. Operator says only the cars owner can call. When notified that the car owner is deaf, the only solution provided is that I drive 75km’s on said toll highway and visit their office. That’s audism

But not all is lost. It’s time for my first meeting of the day at a coffee shop. We both order but the cashier has questions and I can’t understand her. I mention that I am deaf so the cashier then speaks only to my friend. That’s Audism.

At the airport (an airport as big, busy and new as Pearson) announcements are oral, there’s no visual announcements, that’s Audism.

My boarding pass states I am deaf. The cheery gate clerk pages me to make sure I am at the gate. That’s Audism.

During the safety briefing the flight attendant hands me a Braille safety sheet. That’s Audism (not Air Canada, those guys are brilliant)

During the flight the flight attendant asks me if I will be ok with the two choices for dinner. Yes of course why wouldn’t I? I ask. She replies “you have special needs.” That’s Audism.

We finally land and I get my rental car. Attendant is quite concerned that a deaf guy has chosen a powerful sports car and suggests something more demure, that’s audism

At the hotel I have another meeting, this time with a number of people, Having difficulty following the conversation I ask the person next to me what was said. They reply with one or two words leaving me with task of understanding the entire conversation based on two words. That’s Audism

Audism, it’s tiring as heck

Inclusion, be direct, be daring, be bold.

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