Monday, August 20, 2007

Working for People with Disabilities?

For a long time, people with disabilities have been crying the mantra of inclusion. In fact, one federal coalition has set up a website called End Exclusion. This website was at first set up as an interactive website where people with disabilities, as well as their friends and family, can comment on issues faced by them in real life. One area of exclusion is the area of Employment and to a lesser extent, Self-Employment.

There are thousands of people, as well as for-profit and not-for-profit agencies that profit from the hopes and dreams of people with disabilities by promising or offering assistance to them by way of preparing them for, or actually finding them, work. People with disabilities flock over to these agencies because they want to work, just like anybody else without a disability. However, just how effective are these agencies in finding people work? If they do find people work, what are the quality of jobs offered when compared to the candidate's personal work history, education and career aspirations?

I personally don't know the "success rate" as one can call it of these agencies, or whether certain agencies have a better "success rate" than others. However, a few years ago, I ran a for-profit agency that assisted persons with disabilities in obtaining self-employment and occasionally, assisted them in finding traditional employment opportunities. My own "success rate" was fairly good, if "success" was actually measured against what the person or client came to our office looking for. Many of these folks were unable to work full-time or work in a traditional workplace due to a myriad of disability and environmental reasons. However, many were able to succeed in developing and continuing to operate their own small businesses for a year or more - even if the income from the business did not take them totally off income supports. Some never came to us to get off ODSP. They just wanted to earn some extra money through a small business. Others did start a business and get off the system and a couple moved on to hire others. I have also worked with people who have moved off ODSP through their businesses, but have incurred substantial overpayments. Our office would negotiate with the originating agency to reduce the overpayments, review actual business earnings, etc.

Besides myself, there are many other agencies that have once provided or currently provide supports of some type to persons with disabilities to enter employment or start their own business. I personally found few of them to be helpful. Unfortunately, it is hard to figure out what is making these agencies unhelpful. However, we need to understand that some of these reasons are borne with government funding requirements, employer biases, as well as limited community infrastructure, in addition to any skills or contacts that may be lacking by the agency itself. While I held my Employment Supports contract, I worked with other individuals and agencies also working under the same umbrella and to some extent, I can understand that not all of this is the fault of the agency in question. However, I DO believe that agencies themselves need to become stronger advocates for change in many ways to improve many of the factors they cannot control.

Some of these factors will be outlined here:

In Ontario, the Employment Supports component of the Ontario Disability Support Program has substantially changed in April 2006. As a result of this, many agencies, including my own, were terminated for no good reason. For those left wanting to continue to provide services, the funding arrangements were changed to a performance only based model. That means, the agency in question will not get paid a dime until they are able to place a client for a period of at least thirteen weeks in a job!

With this formula, many agencies will be unable to earn enough to pay their bills unless they contract with a number of large, (usually) low-waged employers with a high staff turnover, promising them to fill a certain number of positions with their clients and provide a range of coaching supports to them. A successful agency under this formula will contract with Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Tim Horton's and various call centres and send their clients there to work. While some clients will quit or get fired, enough of them will be able to stay at least thirteen weeks so the agency in question will get $6,000 a head, plus a certain amount of money per month for every additional month the client stays on that job.

However, what if you are a person with a disability that by education, training or work experience, you have *no* interest in taking one of these low-waged jobs? Then, you get no help. The argument or theory here is that if you have that kind of education, you don't need any supports - period. How about somebody who may have significant disabilities that apart from special equipment needs, may need a lot more time on the part of the provider to support them and assist them with daily working skills, such as facial interactions, social skills, memory tips, using public transportion, etc.? No additional funds are provided for this. Both types of people will not likely be served.

What is the problem with that, you ask? At least some people who never had jobs before or who just want to start fresh will now be able to work, when they may not have had this opportunity in the past. There IS a problem with this. It puts people with disabilities on a certain plane that guarantees they will never exceed a certain earnings limit. One article I read totally miffed me. You can read it yourself too, which is located here. In this article, ask yourself how much this man made as a plumber or plumbing contractor, then ask yourself how much he likely makes at Home Depot selling plumbing supplies. I doubt he makes more than $8 - $9 an hour now. Is this a success? Another "success" that was pointed out to me was a person with a disability getting a job stuffing envelopes for eight hours a week, when what she really wanted was to go back to school and train as a personal support worker. These agencies got their $6,000, but where are the clients? Are they really any better off than they were?


There is a prevailing attitude that people with disabilities cannot do work that has any degree of responsibility or authority in it. This attitude prevailed during the same period of time that people were placed in sheltered workshops and paid pennies a day for boring, repetitive work that nobody else will do. Unfortunately, many people carry this same attitude today, despite the fact that sheltered workshops are out of vogue and people want real jobs with real pay. The example given above for the individual given a job stuffing envelopes for eight hours a week is only one example of what I've seen. This individual was told the reason for this was because she never held a job before. So? Do young high school students vying for their first position have to engage in boring, repetitive labour such as stuffing envelopes or putting nuts and bolts together in a warehouse, before they can join McDonald's or Burger King or even have a paper route? Of course not! What about the woman in my example who wants to go back to school to become a personal support worker? There's no support for that, unless she went the OSAP route I hear.

How about those people with disabilities that are already educated? While statistics show it is better for people to be educated than less educated when looking for work, it is less effective for people with disabilities. There is a glass ceiling that holds people back; again, this is because many employers, including those that work with people with disabilities, feel that people with disabilities cannot do work beyond a minimal level. Many of these same agencies have tried to prevent people from disabilities from applying by throwing barriers in the way of the job, such as requiring candidates to have a valid driver's license and own a vehicle, requiring candidates to type at a certain speed, requiring mandatory shift work, etc. For those people with disabilities that apply anyways, they are screened out using quieter methods.

This attitude is slowly changing for people with visible and physical disabilities. However, those with less visible disabilities, the attitudes are still in the dark ages. Everyday I hear about people with mental health conditions, for example, as people either to be pitied or locked away, or thrown in jail (because they're all violent). I met a woman who told me there are so many people with mental illnesses that are allowed out in the community, but refuse to take their medications. I then say, "So what? There are people with cancer, people with diabetes, people with heart conditions, etc. that also don't want to listen to their doctors.". The point of her argument was that "people with mental illnesses" (and this I assume would mean almost all of them with few exceptions) don't know they need medication, etc. to function. If people like this believe folks with invisible disabilities like mental illness cannot even function outside of an institution, they certainly are not going to believe they can hold a job!

However, these same people are shocked when I refer them to the National Empowerment Centre that is operated by well-educated and respected professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, researchers and advocates, almost all of whom had been diagnosed with severe mental health problems, including schizophrenia and manic-depression. There are others who have made their careers in politics (e.g. Winston Churchill), the arts (e.g. Ernest Hemingway, Margot Kidder, Margaret Trudeau), science (e.g. Buzz Aldrin, Kay Redfield Jamieson), etc. There are others that may not be famous, but who have made careers for themselves in the field of law, medicine, psychology, teaching, research, etc. The movie A Beautiful Mind about mathematician and college professor John Nash was a hit a few years ago. People with mental health problems that can function are NOT an anomolie. There was a study a few years ago into what people with mental health problems who work in professional, executive and managerial positions need for support, the abstract for which can be found here.

However, when you are a person with a disability, have an education and/or substantially high level experience, you are told you don't need any help and are once again, left to your own devices. You are expected to follow the bootstrap theory and simply wave your magic wand to obtain the resources you need to fit in. This issue is not unknown to people. A new organization called the Canadian Association for Professionals with Disabilities is trying to educate employers, government, regulatory bodies and agencies that we want and need more than what is offered. What is often hurtful are comments that are made by well-meaning people that think people like this should just work in a low-wage job for the sake of re-developing work skills and connecting to people, etc. and then go that way back up the ladder. For professionals with disabilities that have worked in managerial, executive and professional positions, having a low-wage entry level job on your resume will only hurt, not help one's job search. To me, the words "damaged goods" will come up if I were a hiring manager receiving a resume of this type ... I will wonder why this apparently multi-talented person is not already working in a job like the one I am offering, as opposed to choosing a low-wage "survival job" (which for too many turns out to be a dead-end job).


For agencies and government, they actually believe people with disabilities ALL want to stay on ODSP for the rest of their lives. They fixed the ODSP program to make it easier to find work and keep more income. These are good measures in themselves, but when job development programs and agencies are set up to help people find these jobs, their assumptions need to change. For example, people get told they can take an $8 - $10 hour job and they can keep $4 - $5 of what they earn and keep most of their ODSP benefits. This idea is fine for some people - particularly people whose disability will likely not allow them to work more than a few hours a week, for example. What about people who want to join the normal world of work, where there are maternity benefits, health care benefits, retirement funds and other benefits besides a livable wage to work for? People on ODSP are not allowed to save or put money towards a retirement income, as stated in my last entry. People want to get OUT OF POVERTY. Unless the government plans on immediately issuing a 40-50% raise in ODSP rates, then people who work and keep some ODSP income will NEVER escape poverty. Many people with disabilities want an employment service that will help them find jobs that will pay them enough to get off ODSP and remain off it for life.

The desire to own, as oppose to rent a home, is no less among people on ODSP than among the general public. The desire to have disposable income to use for travel, hobbies, family and to purchase a motor vehicle is no less among people on ODSP than the general public. The desire to be seen as a "normal, contributing citizen" is no less among people on ODSP than the general public. People with disabilities that have higher-level skills need opportunities that will help them move off ODSP and out of poverty entirely.


Agencies that work with people with disabilities for the large part live in an "us" and "them" dichotomy. The "us" include themselves and people from other agencies working in the same field. To some extent, some include employers and government as well among the "us" - because this is the middle class thing to do. The "them" part of this dichotomy includes the people with disabilities that they serve. It is an unconscious thing on the part of agencies that serve this group, but there is a prevailing belief among staff of these agencies that they all have qualifications and deserve to make the amount of money they are earning (or more, in some cases), while the people they work with should be happy with a minimum wage job. They don't perceive their clients as being equally or even more qualified than they are. The prevailing issue here is that if the client was more qualified, they'd be working!

After many years of seeing both sides of the system and working as an advocate, I feel I am entitled to my opinion and to voice them. At one conference that was held here in Niagara last year, a variety of employment support providers presented their programs and criteria to attendees, so they knew what options were out there if they wanted to choose. ODSP Employment Supports presented their program, but they were unable to answer the question as to how a person seeking higher level employment can obtain help under their new guidelines, which seem to restrict people to a "jobs first" mentality similar to that of Ontario Works. Another group I had a little fun with was the BUILT Network. BUILT Network is a network of agencies across Canada that provide training in computers, customer service and basic job skills for ten (10) weeks. I believe they only serve people with mental health problems, but I may be wrong on that. However, I did ask if the person presenting the program agreed that the average wage of a successful graduate from that program would likely be $8 - $10 an hour. The woman presenting agreed with this. However, she didn't know what to say when I asked if SHE was making $8 - $10 an hour to run and manage this program. If it is good enough for somebody like this program leader to make approx. $40,000 a year, why is it not good enough to expect the same for participants that join this program? I guess some consumers are better than others, as George Orwell implied in his book, Animal Farm.


People with disabilities face a substantial number of systemic issues when it comes to taking a job. I explored some of them in earlier posts, such as the strong disincentives to re-enter the workforce at all for those that live in subsidized housing as well as receive social income. I have never been a fan of social housing and no matter what people tell me about the wonder of social housing, I am never going to believe them ... particularly if the housing is meant for anybody who at some point may return to the paid labour force. For people who are retired or who have a disability that stops them from doing ANY paid work, it may be an option. However, I tend to not see it as viable for others, particularly if they want to avoid not only the clawbacks from ODSP or OW, but also the clawbacks that show up in the way of substantial and varied rent hikes over the course of several months. I also discussed barriers to work that are based on transportation issues. To me, municipalities greater than a certain size have not only a right to provide transit service, but should have a legal responsibility to do so. If there is a region that encompasses several municipalities, then there must also be transportation between the stated municipalities. If the personal automobile is relied upon by more than 70 -80% of the people living within a region, then the region has a problem.

Social agencies have for years attempted to set up volunteer driver programs for Niagara, but they have not been effective because they are essentially run by volunteers who can choose to work or choose not to. Reliability of service is not intact. Taxi services are available at great cost to people who choose to use them. It is available to some for medical travel, but not for employment purposes. Again, this goes back to attitudes - a belief that people with disabilities are sick and use greater medical resources than others, which is not necessarily true. Most people with disabilities apart from their impairment are as healthy as others in their respective age group. Further, many people without so-called disabilities or who may not identify themselves as being "disabled" do utilize a high level of health care resources, even if they may be working, have a family and function in the community. I am referring to your cancer patients, people with diabetes that need to bring their condition under control, obese people, etc - all of whom may not see themselves as disabled per se, but do have chronic conditions requiring the ongoing care of a doctor. People with disabilities are no more likely to be in this position than anybody else ...

Other external realities relate to the labour market at large. In Ontario, over 500,000 manufacturing jobs were lost within the past several years. Over time, these jobs are being replaced by lower paid light manufacturing, service and retail jobs that are not even nearly enough to support oneself, let alone a family. Work needs to be done to increase the number of higher paid positions for skilled workers and professionals. At the same time, agencies that work with people with disabilities need to work with those providing the higher paid positions, particularly those that have better benefits and security, to sell their qualified clients to them ... if an employer is stupid enough to require candidates to have their own vehicle when the job has no bona fide occupational requirements that require the same, employment agencies (not the candidate) should be advocating with these employers to either remove this restriction or find a way to accommodate a client that would otherwise qualify, but doesn't drive. After all, these people are PAID to do a certain job; they should do their job.

Other factors include training and skills development. As I stated above, somebody wanted to go for training as a Personal Support Worker, but was instead referred to stuff envelopes for a staffing agency for eight hours a week. Why are there no programs, or at least programs that will present themselves, that will PAY the costs of retraining for those that need it in order to become employable? Many people on ODSP cannot get OSAP. One out of six ODSP recipients are university graduates; others have college or some post-secondary training ... which means a great deal of them have unpaid student loans. When you have an unpaid student loan, you cannot go back unless it is paid off. If you get ODSP, you are lucky to be able to shelter and feed yourself, let alone repay a student loan. Further, most of those requiring retraining do not have enough recent attachment to the labour force to qualify for EI funding. Technically, the Opportunities Fund is supposed to help with some retraining costs, but I have encountered a number of people with disabilities facing more obstacles when they approach this program ... depending on which agency is funded to administer the fund, I have heard people who received comments made to them that (the worker) did not feel the person with the disability was able to handle the course, the course was too expensive (with accommodations built in, as needed) or the person would not be able to do a job in the field once they graduate. These again are assumptions made by agency workers about the alleged abilities or disabilities of the person they are working with, as opposed to any real assessments.


I am not sure what can be done, but whatever does get done needs to be done fast and in a much more aggressive way. Perhaps, lawsuits need to be filed against those who discriminate against people with disabilities. If an employer cannot show a bona fide reason for requiring a candidate to have a driver's license and a car, the employment agency worker needs to push the issue ... if they are not successful and the person would otherwise be eligible, a lawsuit may need to be filed, perhaps with attendant publicity. If the employer is publicly funded, a report to the funder as well should be made. Media reports of obvious acts of discrimination need to be made, such as one where I publicized a long running case against a transit service that tried to charge a blind passenger for her guide dog.

Employment and economic development agencies need to work with funders and investors to develop businesses that are marketable and productive that will hire people with disabilities. I am not referring to programs like OCAB, where permanent government funding is given to run the business (because it unfairly subsidizes the businesses of some but not others). I am referring to start-ups and working with individuals that may have the professional skills needed to run, market, do accounting or legal work for, the business, as well as others that have the skills to provide the services the business offers. This would eventually work like any other business works, e.g. funded by customers, contracts and fees w/occasional loans as the business grows and develops. However, support is needed at the start-up phase and in the consulting area (which is another area where professionals with disabilities can contribute). Such businesses may or may not want to refer to themselves as "disability-run" - let that be their choice, but let it be their policy to hire QUALIFIED persons with disabilities.

Further, jobs always come up in the public and non-profit sector. Employers in these sectors should provide leadership in hiring QUALIFIED persons with disabilities. The mistake many affirmative action policies often make is hiring less qualified persons with disabilities that may have some experience, for example. There are dozens of examples of people working in the government or non-profit sector (and likely the private sector too - but private sector is less of a concern because the owners of these companies absorb all the risk) ... that are poorly educated and have few qualifications. Executive director positions, for example, should require at least a relevant university degree ... yet, I know more than a few people who occupy these types of jobs who have less than high school and this is definitely reflected in the quality of service provided. With no standards to adhere to or aspire to, nobody can truly assess if these agencies are actually doing a professional job. As a professional in my own field, I have to pay a truckload of fees for exams, licencing, membership dues, conferences and continued education fees, etc. and account to a professional oversight body and I don't even make one quarter of what many of these drop-outs working in these agencies that account to nobody earn!

Because there are no market forces or personal risk at stake with government and non-profit agencies, stringent accountability processes and standards need to be in place to ensure that quality services are delivered and staff hired in these positions are qualified and accountable. At the present time, the only body these above referred to rogue managers account to is their boards and like many people, we are all aware of boards that do nothing or are simply hand-picked by the executive directors. This *has* to change ... maybe it's time for agency and staff licensing and/or the creation of a body that actually oversees the operation of these agencies. People need a place to complain to and be heard without getting the brush off from boards and even funders that somehow feel personally connected to the people they work with. Whatever body is put in place must be separate from the boards and the funders to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

I am all too aware of various publicly funded agencies that provide a myriad of services to individuals with disabilities that keep unqualified staff to deliver these services ... it is almost like people with disabilities don't deserve qualified, accountable services. This takes place all the while many qualified, educated people with disabilities are sitting on ODSP!

I want people's thoughts on this. Comments?

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