featured Inclusion Labour

The exploitation of disabled workers

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – It is a well-known fact that disabled people face overwhelming rates of unemployment or under-employment. According to Statistics Canada’s most recent Canadian Survey on Disability, conducted in 2012, only 47% of Canadians aged 15 to 64 with a disability said they were employed. Conversely, 74% of Canadians aged 15 to 64 without a disability were employed, according to the survey results.

With regards to a specific disability, there are 500,000 working-age autistic adults or adults with intellectual disabilities, but only one in four are employed.

So with that in mind, having programs in place to help autistic and other disabled people find employment sounds like a good idea.

But there’s a darker side to this that nobody talks about.

First off, let me say that I’m the first to agree that everyone deserves meaningful employment. As an autistic adult (and a millennial), I know how difficult it is to find work that’s in line with my level of education and my chosen career. So I do support these employment support programs in principle. And I certainly support inclusive hiring practices!

But I also have concerns.

First off, it’s often said that disabled people score better in certain employment-related areas than non-disabled people. According to Ready, Willing and Able’s Business Case for Hiring People with Intellectual Disabilities or Autism Spectrum Disorder:

  • 75% or more of employers rate workers with intellectual disabilities as good to very good on performance factors
  • 86% of employees with a disability rated average or better on attendance than their colleagues without a disability
  • 98% of employees with a disability rate average or better in work safety than their colleagues without a disability
  • 75% of employers surveyed said employing individuals with an intellectual disability or ASD has been a truly positive experience
The tropes about disabled people being more productive and motivated, and having lower rates of absenteeism and turnover, are problematic in several ways.

As previously mentioned, disabled people face high rates of unemployment and under-employment, which therefore means they are overwhelmingly in the low-income or no-income categories. This means they can’t risk losing their jobs. They have a lot more to lose than non-disabled people if they call in sick or don’t perform according to the employer’s expectations.

So when companies boast about hiring disabled people to build an inclusive workforce, or comment that disabled people are so loyal to the company (or because they don’t complain), they may be in fact exploiting vulnerable people who have a lot to lose.

Disabled people don’t just want menial jobs

Another issue is that disabled people are frequently hired into menial, low-level positions. At the very least, these jobs are the ones employment support programs frequently inform their clients about.

Let me tell you about my experience with this.

A few years ago, when I was between film and television work, I signed up for Autism Nova Scotia’s Autism Job Seekers Database, which is done in partnership with Ready, Willing and Able (RWA).

I had a meeting with one of their coordinators, but it was soon obvious that this may not be the best option for someone of my experience and education levels.

Since I’m in the database, I frequently receive job opportunities that RWA helps recruit for. However, they are always meant for people who have no job experience at all. They include cleaning and maintenance jobs, warehouse technicians, gardeners and labourers, retail greeters, and other such positions.

Of course, hiring people – anybody – for these jobs isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but as I’ve said, they’re clearly meant for people with no job experience at all. But people who have more experience and education may not be the best fit for these programs. Speaking for myself, I have two NSCC diplomas, several years of experience working for the federal government, and experience working in the film and television industry. And I have never worked in retail, or the food service industry, or any of the other jobs listed above.

I can assure you that if I were to apply, my application would likely be filtered out so that the employer doesn’t see it, because I would be considered overqualified and without the experience they’re looking for. (And many non-disabled people would have this challenge, as well.)

Employment stereotypes

All too often, employment support programs are not person-centred, but rather make broad generalizations and assumptions about what autistic and other disabled people are interested in, and what their natural skills and abilities are.

For instance, an international company called Specialisterne helps autistic people find work, but they are primarily focused on technology-related work. Microsoft also has a program to hire autistic people. These can be useful, but only if you’re interested in IT work. And the idea that autistic people are heavily into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is misleading and harmful.

Another common myth is that autistic people are good at jobs that are very repetitive and that other people find boring, because we pay so much attention to detail. This is also misleading, as many autistics find those kinds of jobs boring just like other people would.

The fact is, disabled people can and do have the same kinds of jobs other people have. Some are professional writers, artists, musicians. Some are teachers, therapists, social activists. And yes, there are some who are good in STEM, as well.

Sheltered workshops, a contentious issue

One major point of contention for many disabled people is the issue of sheltered workshops. These are supposedly non-profit agencies that employ people with disabilities separate from non-disabled people. All too often, however, they pay less than minimum wage, sometimes less than one dollar an hour. There are currently 30 sheltered workshops in Nova Scotia known as “Adult Services Centres”, all supported by the Department of Community Services.

Currently, there is a major political to-do over sheltered workshops in Ontario. The recently-passed Bill 148, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, aims to phase out Ontario’s sheltered workshops by the end of the year. However, several non-disabled parents of disabled people oppose this, claiming that any job at all, even one that pays very little, gives disabled people a sense of purpose.

I will be writing more about the issue of sheltered workshops in a future article.

Don’t force disabled people into boxes

 While there may be people who do enjoy the kinds of work typically considered by employment support programs for disabled people, these programs should really consider looking at a wider variety of jobs, and take into consideration the fact that there are disabled people with post-secondary education who cannot get a job in their chosen fields. Forcing disabled people into boxes based on stereotypical ideas of what our strengths are doesn’t allow us to pursue the lines of work we truly want to do, or that are in alignment with our skills and abilities.

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