by Gail Fawcett
The following article is excerpted from a forthcoming CCSD report, "Bringing Down the Barriers: The labour market and women with disabilities in Ontario," by Gail Fawcett, a Senior Research Associate at the CCSD. The report is scheduled for release in Spring 2000. Findings presented here refer to working-age individuals aged 15 to 64.
In October 1998, the federal government released In Unison: A Canadian Approach to Disability Issues, a vision paper intended as a blueprint for promoting the full citizenship and full participation of Canadians with disabilities in all aspects of society. In Unison relies on three main building blocks: disability supports, employment, and income.
Even before In Unison identified employment as one of the building blocks of full citizenship, persons with disabilities understood its importance in their lives. With one of the lowest rates of participation in the labour force and one of the highest rates of poverty in Canada, women with disabilities are well aware of the advantages of having employment. The research presented here shows that much more work is needed in order to reach the goals outlined by the In Unison report.
Disability is a strong indicator of poverty
The connection between disability and poverty is clear. In 1995, 36.2 per cent of women aged 15 to 64 with disabilities in Canada were poor, compared to 18.5 per cent of women without disabilities. In Ontario, the poverty rates were slightly lower: women with disabilities had a poverty rate of 31.6 per cent, compared to 16.4 per cent for women without disabilities. A similar pattern was observed among men. In 1996, the national poverty rate for men with disabilities was 34.1 per cent, compared to 15.6 per cent for men without disabilities. Again, men in Ontario fared slightly better, with respective poverty rates of 29.7 and 13.6 per cent.
Labour force activity and poverty
As would be expected, there is an enormous difference in poverty rates between women with disabilities who are not employed at all and those who have full-time full-year employment. As shown in Figure 2, the poverty rate in 1995 for women with disabilities who were employed full-time full-year in Canada was 10.2 per cent; among Canadian women with disabilities who were not employed at all, the poverty rate stood at 45.4 per cent – nearly five times higher. Women with disabilities who worked part-time for a full year had a poverty rate of 21.1 per cent, while those who worked either part-time or full-time but for less than 49 weeks had a poverty rate of 28.4 per cent.
Source: Prepared by the Canadian Council on Social Development using data from Statistics Canada's 1996 Census.
Similar patterns of correlation between poverty rates and employment activity are found among women without disabilities and men with or without disabilities. Overall, women in Canada with disabilities experience higher rates of poverty than do women without disabilities, however, the gap between the two groups narrows considerably when they have similar work patterns. While employment alone will not put women with disabilities on an equal footing with either men with disabilities or women without disabilities, these findings suggest that it would go a long way towards improving their overall economic situation.
Women with disabilities as sole income providers
As shown in Figure 3, women and men with disabilities are more likely to be the sole providers of family income than are their non-disabled counterparts. This is largely due to the fact that women and men with disabilities are more likely to live alone; women with disabilities are also more likely than other groups to live as lone parents. Among women with disabilities, almost one in 10 (9.7 per cent) lived as a lone parent in 1996, while only 7.6 per cent of women without disabilities were in the same situation. For men, the rates were 2.8 per cent and 1.1 per cent respectively.
Source: Prepared by the Canadian Council on Social Development using data from Statistics Canada's Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics, 1993-94.
Women with disabilities face work instability
Women and men with disabilities who find work still face considerable challenges staying employed. Among those who participated in the paid labour market at some point between 1993 and 1994, 69.3 per cent of women with disabilities experienced some instability caused by unemployment, dropping out of the labour market, or a combination of the two; among women without disabilities, 42.3 per cent experienced such disruptions. Among men with disabilities, 59.5 per cent experienced a disruption in employment at some point in 1994/94, as did 37 per cent of men without disabilities.
A significant proportion of women and men with disabilities remain out of the paid labour force entirely. Between 1993 and 1994, over half (56.8 per cent) of working-age women with a disability remained out of the paid labour force for the entire two-year period, compared to only 15.3 per cent of women without disabilities. Among men with disabilities, 46.3 per cent remained out of the labour force for both years, compared to only 3.1 per cent of men without disabilities.
The reasons for this instability may be twofold. First, women with disabilities are often the "last hired and first fired" from any job they do find. Second, the cyclical nature of some disabilities may result in an individual having to take time out of the labour force.
Income supports may discourage job search
The unstable employment patterns exhibited by many persons with disabilities may be further complicated by the likelihood of them having greater expenses related to their disability. According to the 1991 Health Activity Limitation Survey (HALS), 37.6 per cent of women and 32.5 per cent of men with disabilities reported having non-reimbursed expenses directly related to their disability, including expenses for medication, transportation and other supports. In order to be truly self-sufficient, many persons with disabilities need to earn significantly more in order to cover these extra costs. Many income support programs – such as social assistance and disability pensions – provide at least some of these supports. However, when a person with a disability moves to employment, those supports – and their income benefits – disappear. As such, persons with disabilities who look for work face a dilemma: in their attempts to convince potential employers that they are capable of working, they may disqualify themselves from the social assistance and disability supports they need in order to survive. As one Focus Group participant observed, "To get a job, you have to prove to an employer that you can work. But to survive when you don’t have a job, you have to convince the government that you can’t work."
Women with disabilities earn less
Even when employed year-round, women with disabilities typically earn less than either women without disabilities or men with disabilities. As shown in Figure 4, 37.6 per cent of working-age women with disabilities who were employed for a full year had earnings of less than $15,640, compared to 29.4 per cent of women without disabilities. In stark contrast, only 15.3 per cent of men with disabilities and 10.8 per cent of men without disabilities who were employed for a full year earned less than that amount. Therefore, with these earnings prospects, many women with disabilities would not be able to earn the "premium" required to support themselves and their families, and pay the extra costs of disability-related supports. For many women with disabilities, the safest choice is to remain out of the labour market.
Source: Prepared by the Canadian Council on Social Development using Statistics Canada's Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics, 1993-94.
Strategies to overcome the barriers
At least four broad strategies must be developed to help overcome the employment barriers faced by persons with disabilities and improve their economic stability. First, disability-related supports must be de-linked from income support/replacement programs so that the supports required by persons with disabilities will be available to those who cannot afford to enter the paid workforce. This step was proposed by In Unison.
Second, income support policies and programs must create a safe environment that will allow persons with disabilities to move from the income support programs into the labour force and back again. It is equally important that "trial periods" in the labour force not be limited to relatively short periods of time. Third, improvements such as access to education and training and easy access to work supports might help women with disabilities to compete more successfully for the kinds of jobs that could provide the stability and income they need to survive with a disability in the labour market. Finally, women with disabilities need access to good jobs. This means changing some of the prevailing attitudes towards persons with disabilities.
Gail Fawcett is a Senior Research Associate specializing in disability issues at the CCSD.
Canadian Council on Social Development,
190 O'Connor Street, Suite 100,
Ottawa, Ontario, K2P 2R3