Employees with disabilities need more than a government strategy, say advocates

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Photo: Premier of Ontario Photography/flickr

The Ontario government's recently announced strategy to increase employment of people with disabilities lacks concrete details about how to meet the complex problem, disability advocates say.

The strategy, called Access Talent, was released earlier this month. It challenges all Ontario employers with more than 20 employees to hire at least one more person with a disability, resulting in approximately 56,000 more jobs.

The strategy focuses on four main areas: better preparing youth with disabilities for employment; supporting employers to hire employees who have disabilities; integrating government-operated services and making the government a leader in accessibility.

"Access Talent is a starting point," the strategy says, noting ongoing consultations will refine the strategy. The government will consult with Indigenous and Francophone groups to ensure programs are culturally appropriate, the strategy says.

Advocates and service organizations welcomed the announcement, but the lack of details in the strategy tempered their enthusiasm.

Tobi Muntaz, adult services coordinator at Autism Ontario, said the strategy addresses "fantastic and necessary work." But she stressed the importance of people finding meaningful and sustainable jobs. "It's great that we've created jobs," she said, "but are they jobs that people are happy in?"

Muntaz called the strategy "high-level and lofty." It offers few specifics about the government's plans.

The strategy announced initiatives like an employers' partnership table and an online portal for employers to share experiences and resources, as well as providing more personalized services and supports in the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) to help youth gain employment. The strategy also includes a new supported employment program through Employment Ontario that will provide high-quality services to people looking for work and support for employers.

In an email to rabble.ca, the government said it will increase annual funding to ODSP Employment Supports by $2 million in 2017-2018. Another $1 million is slated for public education.

There are few specifics about the strategy. The employers' partnership table has not been formed. The government has not determined how it will track which businesses are hiring employees with disabilities. The online portal will be available in the "near future," the government said. About the supported employment program, the government said it is beginning to "assess the willingness and readiness of service providers" in Cornwall, Timmins and Belleville, locations where the government hopes to implement the strategy by April 2018.

The lack of details frustrated some disability advocates.

In a release, David Lepofsky, chair of the AODA Alliance, a non-partisan group committed to accessibility in the province, criticized the government for continually moving slowly when addressing the unemployment and underemployment of people with disabilities.

The strategy "too often re-announces things government had said it was already doing," Lepofsky said in the statement, noting more consultations could result in months of delays. "After years of waiting, what we need instead is a plan to hit the ground running now, with immediate, practical action that will quickly help get jobs for far too many unemployed and under-employed Ontarians with disabilities," he said.

The alliance asked the government to consult with them, Lepofsky told rabble.ca in an email. He called the government's failure to do so "really inexcusable."

Donald Prong, executive director of the Ontario Association of the Deaf, said the strategy has the government "singing the same tune over and over again."

"There's nothing new there," he said, calling new initiatives "regurgitated information to help (the government) win the next election."

Prong emphasized the government needs to "walk the talk" and hire more Deaf people. Most Deaf provincial government employees work at Deaf schools run by the province, not in mainstream departments people with disabilities use, like the Ministry of Community and Social Services (MCSS) that administers ODSP. Frontline workers' lack of knowledge about the struggles Deaf people face every day is "scary," he said.

Employing people with disabilities isn't always simple

The government's Access Talent strategy repeatedly stresses the need to show employers that people with disabilities are good workers, and that making workplaces where they can demonstrate their skills is simple.

Getting government supports for adults with developmental disabilities can be difficult. Services in the education system end at age 21. Adults may wait years to access programs from Developmental Services Ontario (DSO). Not all people who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD) qualify for DSO, said Tobi Muntaz. Eligibility is partly based on IQ scores. If someone has ASD and a high IQ, they may not qualify for DSO services. They may still need funding for support in learning skills like personal hygiene or social interactions, critical when accessing jobs.

"There's just a lot of ways that you can become ineligible (for DSO services), and only one way that you can become eligible," said Muntaz.

People with ASD can struggle learning "the hidden curriculum" of skills like communicating with authority figures, she said.

Each person may need different things to excel at work. These could include completing job interviews online, or changing the workplace environment to eliminate distractions. Employers could let people work from home if that's an environment where workers can be most productive, Muntaz said. But this requires employers to be flexible, and for employees with ASD to know what they need and how to ask for it.

When that happens, employees can succeed. David Moloney has worked at CIBC in Toronto since 2007. He recently began training for a back office job after years as a branch ambassador interacting with customers. He enjoyed his previous position, but likes how his new role gives him more routine and could allow for job advancement.

Moloney, who was diagnosed with Asperger's as a young adult, said he used to be extremely shy. He's gotten better at being in large groups, and "revels" in public speaking, he said. But difficulty understanding social cues "is something that's always with me." He credits his success to a job coach he accessed through ODSP Employment Supports, and supportive managers.

Not everyone has these resources.

Donald Prong said Deaf employees face particular barriers, partly because of limited education opportunities. They're also sometimes excluded from broader groups of people who have disabilities. This is because Deaf people are a linguistic, cultural minority group, he said.

More employers are used to accommodating people who use wheelchairs or installing assistive technology for people with visual impairments. (The Access Talent strategy repeatedly mentions helping employers get adaptive technology or assistive devices.) But the language barrier to communicate with a Deaf person can intimidate employers. Prong has heard about Deaf employers who were reprimanded for not following new health and safety procedures. But the policies were presented at staff meetings where there was no sign language interpretation.

Deaf employees will likely need a sign language interpreter to succeed at work -- an added cost for employers. Unlike wheelchairs that only need replacement every few years, sign language interpretation is an ongoing need. Prong worked in human resources at a large non-profit before coming to the Ontario Association for the Deaf. He says he succeeded at that job because he had a sign language interpreter at work.

The Ontario Association of the Deaf participated in a community forum about the government's strategy. It recommended employers receive tax breaks for hiring interpreters.

Moloney said he's not concerned the government's challenge for employers to hire more people with disabilities will lead to tokenism.

"I personally believe that however we can do it, we should get as many people with disabilities (jobs)," he said. "It's on us, and various employers, to employ people with disabilities not because they need the work, but because it makes sense."

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: Premier of Ontario Photography/flickr

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