Looking at Poverty Through the Lens of People with Disabilities

Canada has much to be proud of when it comes to addressing the inclusion of people with disabilities within society. From legislative efforts to human right protections , clear and positive steps have been taken over the last half-century that have increased access to many goods, services and supports that can have led to many positive and productive outcomes.   I only have to look at the faces and stories of many of students with disabilities that I have worked with in my career, to know that the investment made in opening access, specifically in post-secondary education has made a significant difference.

However, despite this progress, when it comes to the issue of poverty and people with disabilities there is still significant work to do.  Here are some alarming facts from Statistics Canada:

  • People living with disabilities (both mental and physical) are twice as likely to live below the poverty line.
  • Nearly 15% of people with disabilities live in poverty, 59% of which are women.
  • Less than half of working-age Canadians with physical and mental disabilities have a job, a significantly lower percentage  than the general population
  • Estimates place the number of homeless individuals living with a disability or mental illness as high as 45% of the overall homeless population.
  • Children with disabilities are twice as likely to live in households relying on social assistance
  • The self-reported median income of Canadians with disabilities was just over $20,000 dollars.

Clearly despite the progress there are gaps that need to be addressed, concretely when it comes to meaningful work and employment. One of the biggest frustrations for me is to see students with disabilities who work hard, complete their education, and come up against barriers (which are often invisible) when they attempt to make the transition to work.  There are some great programs within London and new technology tools that show great promise to start making a difference to help improves access to meaningful work for people with disabilities.  I just want to highlight a few which we believe show promise:

  • Magnet: Developed out of Ryerson University and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce with funding from the Province of Ontario, this tool, attempts to the connect people with disabilities and employers. The system provides a “self-ID” feature that provides job seekers with a positive way to privately and securely identify their disability as strength. Candidates are matched to employers committed to hiring people with disabilities based upon their skills, preferences and talent requirements.
  • LEADS: Located here in London, LEAD’s work with clients who need varying levels of assistance developing skills and accessing employment opportunities, and/or post-employment supports. More importantly they work with employers who have hiring needs. According to their reported data, they have placed over 14,000 candidates into meaningful work opportunities.
  • RISE Asset Development. Rise provides low interest small business loans, training, and mentorship to entrepreneurs with a history of mental health or addiction challenges. With an office locate here in London, this organization provides a range of support so that people can start their own businesses.

Of course these are just some of the tools and organizations that empower people with disabilities and help reduce the barriers to gainful employment which everyone should have the opportunity to access in Canada. So aside from these specific programs what should we consider to advocate for in the supporting people with disabilities to access to work:

  1. Check our biases.  Indeed stigma is still prevalent, but I often find people with disabilities bring different perspectives that allow for creative ideas and solutions (and possibly new business ideas).  Opening our minds to the lived realities of people with disabilities helps us incorporate more universal approaches in the design and delivery of programs, products and services.
  2. Include people with disabilities in the dialogue.  While not overtly excluding people with disabilities, we might unintentionally exclude by not talking directly to those with the lived experience of a disability. Ironically in our effort to empower we forget about actually listening first. So where possible include people with disabilities at the decision table.
  3. Data. Let’s continue to track our progress. Work like that of the London Poverty Research Centre at King’s allows us to capture important data so that we can make informed decisions about how we make progress on the issues of poverty of people with disabilities. We need to continue to develop better data sets so we know about our progress, communicate challenges and make change.

I am proud of the work we do in post-secondary education and at King’s related to the increased access for students with disabilities. The next step is to work to ensure that as students complete their education, that they can every opportunity to attain a level of employment consistent with that education.  London and our society will be better for it.

Joe Henry is the Dean of Students at King’s University College.