We are told the Canadian economy faces a shortage of people with the “right” skills as baby boomers leave the workforce.
We also hear about the tremendous need for temporary foreign workers to fill positions Canadians won’t take.
These problems are real, but there is a solution staring us in the face, one we continually ignore because, well, that’s what we’ve always done.
At least part of the solution is to look to the thousands of Canadians with disabilities.
For the most part, the education system has done its job.
Beginning at the elementary level, students with disabilities have access to support and services that allow them not only to participate in the education process but increasingly to be successful. Students with disabilities are graduating from our secondary schools in record numbers.
As a result of secondary school success, more and more students with disabilities have been moving into our post-secondary system. According to recent statistics from the Ontario Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities, there were more than 43,000 students with disabilities registered in the post-secondary system.
In addition, 14 per cent of the total enrolment in Ontario colleges consisted of students with disabilities in the 2010-11 academic year. The enrolment of students with disabilities has grown at a double-digit rate in many institutions over the last decade.
Unfortunately, graduates with disabilities still face many barriers when they try to transition into the workforce. These barriers prevent many qualified, capable and skilled people from jobs they are prepared to undertake.
According to Statistics Canada, people with disabilities are significantly under-represented in the workforce: 75 per cent of people without disabilities were employed in Canada in 2006, compared with only 51 per cent of the disabled.
So how do we begin to address this gap? Let’s look at three areas: professional organizations, unions and private business.
Many professional bodies require candidates to take licensing exams before entry into the profession. Candidates with disabilities require suitable accommodations so they can compete on a level playing field. While some bodies do post their accommodation practices, they either make those practices and procedures difficult to access or so onerous that students end up writing their exams without accommodations and subsequently fail.
In addition, licensing bodies set competency standards related to the cognitive, physical and emotional demands of specific professional roles or trades — nurse, engineer, teacher, carpenter etc. However, these competency requirements are not necessarily developed in consultation with people with disabilities, so by they can end up being more exclusionary than they should. Professional bodies, regulatory agencies and similar organizations should consult more widely to gain a better understanding of how people with disabilities can meet these requirements.
The labour movement plays an important role in determining the scope and nature of work performed by union members. However, in workplaces governed by a collective agreement, roles may need to be modified to help individuals with a disability. This may include issues such as hours of work or how benefits are allotted to union members.
As for employers, besides developing programs to encourage the hiring of people with disabilities, workplaces should be made fully accessible. I am not suggesting a quota or affirmative-action policy, but I would ask employers to examine their recruitment and hiring practices so they do not tacitly or even overtly discourage people with disabilities.
Canada leads the world in terms of access and attainment of post-secondary education for people with disabilities. And up to 70 per cent of all new jobs will require some form of education beyond secondary school. Our colleges and universities have stepped up to ensure that students with disabilities can participate and graduate with the skills required to benefit our society.
Now it is up to employers, labour unions and professional regulatory bodies to work together to ensure that the human capital that has been developed as result of taxpayer and student investment in higher education is not wasted.