Impact of COVID, and signs of progress, in the spotlight at disabilities and work conference

Pandemic hardship for people with disabilities and positive policy developments among the themes heard at the 2020 Disability and Work in Canada conference

Published: February 16, 2021

Since it was first held in 2017, the annual Disability and Work in Canada conference has focused on advancing a pan-Canadian strategy to improve paid employment opportunities for persons with disabilities.

These efforts have taken a new turn with the COVID-19 global pandemic. At the 2020 online event, held in late November and early December, a dominant theme was the outsized impact of the pandemic on work outcomes for persons with disabilities.

But hopeful notes were also sounded at the conference, a gathering of persons with disabilities, policy-makers, service providers, employers, advocates and researchers. Some participants were cautiously buoyed by recent policy developments, chief among them the federal government’s announcement of a Disability Inclusion Action Plan. Others saw in the pandemic an opportunity to make gains in workplace awareness of disability issues.

Since last year's conference, the world has been upended. Persons with disabilities worldwide have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Major gaps in our core systems, including health care, have been revealed, said Carla Qualtrough, federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, in her remarks.

The systemic discrimination that persons with disabilities have fought tirelessly to confront has borne out in heartbreaking ways, added Qualtrough, who also spoke at the 2019 conference. These new realities threaten their independence. It also risks undermining decades of work that's been done to advance the rights of persons with disabilities. And that makes the work that our government is doing in partnership with the disability community all the more critical.

Disability and Work in Canada (DWC) is organized by a steering committee representing four organizations: Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy (CRWDP), a research partnership housed at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH); Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work (CCRW); and the Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups (ONIWG). InclusionNL was also part of the committee for the first three conferences. Current members are Alec Farquhar (formerly from the Ontario Office of the Worker Advisor), Maureen Haan (CCRW), Steve Mantis (ONIWG), Dr. Ron Saunders from IWH and Dr. Emile Tompa from IWH and CRWDP.

Past years’ conferences focused on drafting the pan-Canadian employment strategy and conducting broad-based community consultations to refine it. Conference materials and presentation videos are available at the CRWDP conference page, as are video recordings of past years' sessions.

From the start, DWC conferences have been animated by a grim statistic: just over half of persons with disabilities are in the workforce. With the pandemic, participants were concerned about the work participation rates of persons with disabilities taking a plunge. In vignettes shared by persons with lived experience, the conference heard how the pandemic has heightened fear and anxiety in some, but also made work easier for others.

Participants also learned about surveys conducted among employers, job candidates and service organizations that found greater barriers for persons with disabilities during the pandemic. Two of the surveys focused on participants in job-matching programs, and they painted a similar picture: persons with disabilities were the first to lose work during lockdowns and among the last to be hired back when businesses re-opened.

Businesses were concerned about lengthy training needs, particularly regarding new or modified safety and health protocols that were implemented in response to COVID-19, said Krista Carr, executive vice-president (CEO) at Inclusion Canada, which conducted one of the studies. (Inclusion Canada is a national federation of associations working with persons with intellectual disabilities; it was formerly known as the Canadian Association of Community Living.) Some businesses were adjusting their operations, such as closing down locations or limiting hours. As a result, they tended to give hours to those people who can do a variety of job tasks and not those that do more specialized tasks or specific tasks, she added.

A second survey, conducted on behalf of BC Workforce Innovation or BC Win, also found employers are more hesitant to hire persons with disabilities in the current climate. But it also found that jobseekers with disabilities are disengaging from employment, said Shawn De Raaf, research director at Social Research and Demonstration Corporation, which conducted the survey. It found persons with disabilities were less motivated to work due to stress, anxiety, family responsibilities, personal health concerns and concerns about infecting family members.   

On a more positive note, a survey of persons with episodic conditions found some were optimistic that the pandemic will shift employer attitudes about some of the most needed accommodations, such as flexible schedules and remote work. The COVID 19 crisis has revealed that the kinds of modifications that facilitate the inclusion of people with episodic disabilities are the same changes that have enabled us to adjust to the unexpected challenge of the pandemic, said Lacey Croft, a researcher on the Invisibility to Inclusion project based at the University of Guelph. Yet, until the COVID crisis happened, these kinds of accommodations have often been resisted by employers.

Despite the challenges, participants were also encouraged by recent policy developments. Sherri Torjman, a senior policy analyst at the Maytree Foundation, shared a primer on design questions that need to be asked about the planned Canadian Disability Benefit, one of the components of the Disability Inclusion Action Plan. The government’s signal that it would be modelled after the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors gives her hope.

I’m feeling somewhat optimistic. I think this is a really important start and I'm hoping if we can look at the Guaranteed Income Supplement as our model, I'm hoping that we'll really be able to reduce poverty among Canadians with disabilities over the longer term, said Torjman. Others found positives in the creation of the COVID-19 Disability Advisory Committee to help guide the federal government’s response to the pandemic, and in the dialogue between some provincial governments and disability communities during the pandemic.

Both Qualtrough and Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, who gave a keynote speech at the conference, commended the work by conference organizers and civil society to develop a pan-Canadian strategy to improve the employment of persons with disabilities. The pan-Canadian strategy for disability and work provides “an excellent foundation” for the employment strategy envisioned in the Disability Inclusion Action Plan, said Qualtrough.

Rae applauded conference participants for recognizing that a policy on the employment of persons with disabilities would be needed, as part of the commitments Canada made in ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Your strategy, which you created in a broad community process, should influence the government's work on its own strategy, said Rae in his address. He also endorsed the DWC steering committee’s decision to build a consensus-based strategy rather than one based on mandatory requirements. I think you need both. I think mandatory requirements have their place, but you also need to get people on board. You need to make sure they're committed to it and understand why it's important.

As in previous years, the steering committee is encouraging communities to find opportunities to move forward on any of the initiatives that the pan-Canadian strategy comprises.

I am pleased to see the breadth and diversity of initiatives that have taken place during this difficult year, and to continue the conversation about the importance of participation in paid employment for persons with disabilities, said Tompa, IWH senior scientist and director of CRWDP.

The strategy is owned by civil society, so it’s up to everyone to engage with their communities and workplaces across the country to make progress on the many issues outlined in it.