Did Canada break a promise to its disabled citizens?

Despite their differing approaches, both Canada and the U.S. face challenges in keeping their promise to improve the economic wellbeing of their disabled citizens.

Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Carla Qualtrough rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, Friday, April 7, 2017. Justin Tang, The Canadian Press file photo

David Pettinicchio, The Globe and Mail May 15, 2018

Until recently, the U.S. had generally been regarded a world leader in disability rights, while Canadians with disabilities had to wait until the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms – and even there, activism was necessary in pressuring the government to include disability in the Charter. Meanwhile the U.S. government had already enacted disability rights and anti-discrimination legislation in the early 1970s.

In 1990, Republican President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law, calling it “the world’s first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities.” In addition to informing policies in other countries, the language of the ADA served as a basis for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Then attorney general Richard Thornburgh referred to disability rights as “America’s best export,” while Senator Ted Kaufman called them as “American as apple pie.” Sunday, July 26, marked the 25th anniversary of this landmark legislation.

But with employment rates among Americans with disabilities lower now than before the ADA was enacted – an abysmal 18 per cent in 2012 – and an earnings gap that has remained largely untouched over the last quarter century, the U.S., once world leader, has become a laggard.

How does Canada compare? Considerably better than its neighbour to the south, but there’s definitely remove for improvement. In 2011, the employment rate among disabled people between the ages of 25 and 64 was about 49 per cent compared to 79 per cent for people without disabilities.

When they do work, Canadians with disabilities earn anywhere between 10 and 15 per cent less than similar workers without disabilities. Among men working on a full-year, full-time basis, the average employment income was $69,200, compared with $92,700 among their non-disabled counterparts. Despite the Charter banning discrimination, 15 to 30 per cent of people with disabilities still report being denied a job interview or job because of their disability.

The Council of Canadians with Disabilities suggests that the Charter has been more “symbolic than substantive.” There is no real Canadian equivalent to the ADA, many people instead refer to a “patchwork” of confusing disability policies and regulations.

Under Ontario Disability Support Program, ODSP, marriage regulations, Tim and Natalie Rose became common-law spouses three months after moving in together. Jamieson Dean TVO

Provinces have enacted their own legislation. For instance, Ontario has a fairly comprehensive disability rights policy. However, the employment rate among Ontarians with disabilities is still about three times less than people without disabilities. Workers with disabilities in Ontario earn on average about 12 per cent less than workers without disabilities.

And policies like the ADA haven’t provided more substantive national remedies than the Canadian Charter either. On the contrary, disability rights legislation in the U.S. has been mired in judicial (mis)interpretation, a victim of a weak and unstandardized regulatory mechanism. This was the opinion of many in Congress when they sought to “restore” the original spirit of the ADA in 2008.

Despite their different legal contexts, Canadian courts have resembled their American counterparts in their reluctance to embrace the spirit of the Charter when it comes to equal rights for the disabled. Many disability activists point to the 1997 Eaton case as an example where the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that segregating people with disabilities in education isn’t always discriminatory.

Experts continue to point to the lack of federal resources allocated to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. And, just last year, The Globe and Mail reported on the failure of the Canadian government to monitor compliance when it comes to disability discrimination.

If rights for people with disabilities were once labeled as “American as Apple Pie,” they should be as Canadian as… maple syrup. Whether or not the Charter is guilty of being more platitude than policy is a much bigger debate than can be had here. What is certain is that the solutions to the ongoing problem of unemployment and income inequality among people with disabilities isn’t necessarily about how policy manifests itself – through a legislature or a constitutional amendment – but whether there is a commitment to subsequently enforce these good intentions.

David Pettinicchio is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto.

Source The Globe and Mail


Canadian Disability Policies in a World of Inequalities, Deborah Stienstra. Societies 2018, 8(2), 36; https://doi.org/10.3390/soc8020036

State and Local Determinants of Employment Outcomes Among Individuals With Disabilities, Purvi Sevak PhD, John O’Neill PhD, Andrew Houtenville PhD, and Debra Brucker PhD. Journal of Disability Policy Studies Vol 29, Issue 2, pp. 119-128 First Published July 11, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1177/1044207318782676

“Reasonable Accommodation” and “Accessibility”: Human Rights Instruments Relating to Inclusion and Exclusion in the Labor Market, Marianne Hirschberg and Christian Papadopoulos. Societies 2016, 6(1), 3; https://doi.org/10.3390/soc6010003

Individual Characteristics and the Disability Employment Gap, Purvi Sevak PhD, Andrew J. Houtenville PhD, Debra L. Brucker PhD, and John O’Neill PhD. Journal of Disability Policy Studies Vol 26, Issue 2, pp. 80-88 First Published June 11, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1177/1044207315585823

Also see
Guelph study identifies job barriers for graduates with disabilities in CBC News
‘We did not break a promise’ by cancelling basic income project, social services minister insists in The Toronto Star
Researchers explore variations in employment outcomes for people with disabilities in Medical Xpress
More Canadians seeking CPP disability benefits have denials overturned on appeal in The Toronto Star
Why so many Canadians with disabilities are overeducated and unemployed in TVO
How the Ontario Disability Support Program makes falling in love a challenging proposition in TVO
Putting fundamental rights of persons with disabilities on the map in UCLA Fielding School of Public Health

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