How government funding can best support the employment of persons with disabilities

Key messages

  • The study found that to ensure the sustainable employment of workers with disabilities, financial support needs to be customizable, contextualized to the worker and workplaces’ needs and comprehensive. 
  • A broad range of worker supports were identified in the study that would be of value, noting that needs will differ from person to person, and employer to employer. 

IWH project highlights key features of financial incentives that are most helpful in supporting sustained employment of persons with disabilities

Published: May 4, 2022

What kind of government funding best encourages employers to hire and retain persons with disabilities? A research team at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) recently explored this question.

The team concluded that, to ensure the sustainable employment of workers with disabilities, financial support needs to be:

  • customizable—funding envelopes need to be flexible and allow service providers to offer supports that are both contextualized and comprehensive. 
  • contextualized—supports have to be tailored to the circumstances and the needs of the employer and the person with a disability.
  • comprehensive—supports have to be provided throughout the journey to sustainable employment.

The team found a broad range of supports that were of value, and identified the different contexts in which they can be used effectively. These supports include: help with applications, job matching, customized employment, clothing and equipment, training, benefits counselling, job coaching, among others. The team also found access to transportation to get to and from work to be critical, and funding support to offset such costs necessary. These findings were included in a study report and policy brief completed in late 2021, and available now on the IWH website.

Workers with disabilities are as diverse as able-bodied workers, and the supports they need differ from situation to situation. So, too, do the needs of employers, who come from different sectors and face different circumstances, says Dr. Emile Tompa, a senior scientist at IWH and a co-lead on the project. That was one of the key themes that emerged when our team reviewed the body of research from around the world on financial incentives.

For employment service agencies to provide supports that are customizable, contextualized and comprehensive, their funding envelope from government needs to be flexible, adds Emma Irvin, IWH director of research operations and co-lead on the project. Service agencies need to be able to offer critical services and supports that can be made available to employers and workers with disabilities as needed.

The team’s research also touched on wage subsidies, a form of funding support that often generates polarized views. The report notes that some stakeholders see wage subsidies as helpful in that they let employers with limited resources try out new hires without concern for the potential financial hardship if things don’t work out. However, other stakeholders are concerned that wage subsidies only support short-term jobs while sending negative signals about the persons hired into them.

Wage subsidies that are uniquely targeted to persons with disabilities can be problematic. They can directly or indirectly suggest that persons with disabilities are of lesser value or are more problematic hires than others, says Dr. Rebecca Gewurtz, associate professor at McMaster University, adjunct scientist at IWH and the third co-lead on the study. What’s more important is ensuring that persons with disabilities are supported to find jobs that are well matched to their skills and competencies, and that employers are supported to develop capacity to hire and accommodate diverse workers.

If training subsidies are required, persons with disabilities and employers should be able, and encouraged, to access these through mainstream employment initiatives that are available to everyone, adds Tompa.

How the study was done

In this project, the team considered the term “financial incentives” to mean government-funded supports designed to encourage employers to hire and retain persons with disabilities. After reviewing the evidence to date on the effectiveness of different types of funded supports, the team carried out interviews with 28 key informants—i.e., people with real-world knowledge of such supports. These included policy-makers and funders, employment service providers, workers with disabilities and employers. In the interviews, the team explored challenges and opportunities created by different forms of funded supports, including those that flow through employment service providers.

Workers with disabilities talked about the importance of supports in helping overcome the barriers they face applying for jobs through online platforms and showcasing their skills and experiences at interviews. Some participants noted they were hired with the support of a service provider, which helped with various aspects of the recruitment, hiring and onboarding process—for example, applying for a job, preparing for an interview, and accessing training support after being hired.

Other wrap-around supports that workers said were valuable include help with transportation challenges, clothing and equipment expenses, and counselling on benefits. (The latter addresses workers’ concerns about clawbacks to disability benefits associated with employment earnings.)

Some of the supports employers indicated as most valuable include human resource services such as pre-screening job candidates to ensure a good match to the position, job coaching for workers (i.e. helping workers address work concerns at various points through their employment journey), helping with workplace accommodations and other retention supports.

Our findings highlight the need for funding to be flexible, so that service providers can meet the diverse needs of employers and workers, says Tompa. Employers may vary in how confident they are in hiring and accommodating workers with disabilities, and some have challenges unique to their situation. We think government-funded supports for persons with disabilities would be more helpful if they equip service providers with the flexibility and capacity to tailor their services to the unique needs of each job opportunity.

Persons with disabilities also talked about the challenges of facing multiple physical and social barriers to employment, such as being new to Canada, young and inexperienced, gender diverse, financially insecure, or dependent on transportation that is often inaccessible and unreliable. To help people with disabilities with a number of complex barriers, the research team suggested funding should encourage collaboration across service agencies with different types of expertise.