employment

I’m going to get right to the point here. An increased minimum wage is not harming disabled people. It is however doing a great job at highlighting the ableist and saneist bias that continues to exist within employment in Ontario and social services.

When Bill 148 was still being debate, there were some who used disabled people to make a shameful and disgusting argument against raising the minimum wage, because they felt that employers would not want to pay a disabled person $14 or $15 per hour. Mark Wafer is one such person.

People in the disability community might remember Wafer. He received a number of accolades and significant publicity for hiring people with disabilities at his business (which just happened to be a Tim Hortons franchise). He now works as a public speaker encouraging employers to hire people with disabilities. He just doesn’t think they’re worth the new minimum wage.

Today I was reading in the Toronto Star about how injured workers are getting less support from WSIB, since the rise of the minimum wage. This is true. Once a person is deemed “eligible to work” by WSIB, their supports are reduced by what that person would receive at a minimum wage job, whether or not they’ve actually found work. Finding work is difficult enough these days when you’re not injured or living with a disability. WSIB’s formula is hurting injured workers. This isn’t a new problem, but it’s one that needs to be resolved. Injured workers need our solidarity on this.

I have a full-time job that I have held for almost six years. I’m fortunate now, but it took me a long haul to find that job. As most disabled people who’ve looked for work have discovered, it may be illegal for employers to discriminate against someone with a disability, but there’s plenty of ways to avoid hiring someone with a disability.

Not so long ago I went for a job interview at a non-profit social service agency. I read the job description and felt well qualified for the job. I did well in the interview, but at the end of the interview they showed me a new description, one that had added snow shoveling, and asked me if there was anything on that list I couldn’t do. I wish that I had come up with some clever remark about converting my wheelchair into a snowplow, but instead I felt shamed. That story is not unique. Similar situations happen all the time.

We’d like to forget that until recently we still had sheltered workshops in Ontario, that there’s a whole industry around subsidized employment for disabled people, and that social assistance rates still haven’t recovered from the Mike Harris years.

Disabled people seeking employment are often blamed for their employment woes, but the reality is the job market is set against disabled people. Despite all the talk from governments about finding disabled people work, disabled people are still an often exploited and undervalued labour force, living in a system that would like continue to exploit us.

Disabled people are not the problem, and neither is the minimum wage. Disabled people have the same value as someone with the same job or skills. Disabled people are not responsible for the ableism in the job market.

Disabled people do need to start coming together, we need to start showing solidarity and stop letting ourselves be used as a wedge by those without our lived experience for their own gain.

Presentation at the Canadian Disability Studies Association Conference 2017

Thank you to my fellow organizers and panelists. Before I get started, I’d like to identify myself within this conversation, as a white, employed person with a physical disability that is easily identified with, and the privilege that comes with those things. I also identify as a radical disability activist, knowing that I’m someone who has the privilege to be able to identify myself in that way without much repercussion. The presentation I’m giving today and the research behind it are given in recognition of that privilege, and knowing that the knowledge I share has built on the knowledge of others who may not have these privileges.

I’m also the founder and co-organizer of an annual event called the Toronto Disability Pride March, now in its 7th year. For those of you who may not be familiar with the march, it is a grassroots event lead by a small team of dedicated organizers. We highlight issues facing the disability and mad communities, and by prioritizing the voices of those of us who are the most marginalized. We recognize that the mad and disability communities are as diverse as the communities we come from, while turning privilege on its head. This is reflected in the speakers we call upon each year, but also in our organizing team. Our social media discusses subjects ranging from accessibility standards to Black Lives Matter and Idle No More to labor struggles, the lack of housing in Toronto, and the struggles faced by the many people living in poverty. It’s an amazing bubble of disability justice organizing that we’ve been fortunate to steep ourselves in for the last eight years without any government funded restrictions on the activism we do.

Like many such social justice bubbles, it becomes seductively simple to forget or overlook the reality that most disabled and mad people in Canada do not have these spaces. If these spaces do exist are often much less diverse and harder to plug into, they may seem detached or elite, or simply don’t connect with the day-to-day realities of people’s lives. Many disabled and mad people are connected in small local networks, but a great many others are on their own and left to tackle issues of oppression and discrimination in an individual way.

I’m going to be exploring two main groups of disability organizations today what I refer to as grassroots disability organizations and legacy disability organizations. Grassroots disability organizations are smaller, local organizations with minimal funding or structure, with a focus on a particular disability issue or event. The organizations have a short history, and they often make use of intersectional discussions and social media to increase public awareness to build political pressure in creating change. Legacy organizations tend to focus more on policy and programs, they have a long history usually spanning over decades, and have built strong relationships with governments, and potential funding organizations.

While grassroots disability groups have difficulty connecting with older legacy organizations, the reverse is also true. Legacy organizations seem to do their work outside of what’s happening on the grassroots level. It is the segregation between these two groups that brought about the research I present here. Some time ago I was asked to participate in a research project by legacy organization, asking why younger disabled people weren’t participating in activism. I don’t have my response, but it started with something like “perhaps we should re-examine this question”, and so I am.

To illustrate the bias in the research question of why younger disabled people aren’t participating in activism, allow me to use the example of a poverty group that I worked with back in the early 2000s. The group had a board structure, and was comprised of 50% community members who were people living on ODSP, and 50% service providers such as legal clinic workers and social workers. I sat in both categories as a social work student living on ODSP, and within a few years I was asked to Chair the group. By taking on that role I came to realize why the group had such difficulty communicating. While both sides of the table shared the goal of eliminating poverty, the two sides were not equal. There was a clear power imbalance between the two sides that the structure of the committee could not address. Different priorities in both the structure and goals of the committee were very clear, and both sides looked to me, as the Chair, to prioritize the needs of their group.

The bias is that legacy organizations have failed to acknowledge that a conflict between grassroots and legacy disability organizations exists, or that they may have some role in the conflict. While each group is passionate about disability rights, they end up competing for talking points within larger institutions, rather than working in tandem with each other, and this has led to a decreased effectiveness of the movement as a whole.

To understand this better, we need to have a look at the power structures that make up these groups. When we look at the structure of legacy disability organizations at the national and provincial levels we see a few common traits, a hierarchal board structure, members are voted in by other members of the organization. To become a member, you may have to submit a resume and letter of interest, or be in good standing with another organization. There is nothing inherently wrong with this process, but it is vulnerable to biases of power and instutionalization of historical beliefs about structures of power without much consideration for intersecting oppression.

Grassroots disability organizations do not have a very transparent structure. Their membership is not publicly posted as it is with legacy organizations, there’s no staff time, or experience staff changes with new projects. Members have their own vetting system, and much of the communication happens online or is not open to the public. For the Toronto Disability Pride March, our four-person organizing team was vetted by its members based on their past activities and skill set. The advantage grassroots groups have is in the fluidity of their structure, and their nimbleness for dealing with on the ground shifts in the movement. The recognition these groups gain comes primarily out of their collaboration with other groups.

When we look at other movements like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More, and the disruptions they’ve made; these are the types of struggles that legacy organizations were built on. Many legacy disability organizations were built on a history of struggle, and when those struggles succeeded, those projects became government funded organizations who could no longer advocate against their main funder. This has allowed strong disability projects to be co-oped outside of a disability lens.

Consider the case of the Canadians with Disabilities Act, as I discussed in a recent article I wrote called “Trudeau’s Accessible Canada includes Unpaid Work” (Graham, 2017).

Back in 2015, before the Canadian federal election, a movement of disabled people was building across the country. The call for a barrier-free Canada was built in that time by a small, dedicated group of people who reinforced their message daily through social media and on the ground action. Their methods were so effective, that what began as a grassroots call for national solidarity grew into a campaign promise by Trudeau.

What was mandated was more conversation, in the form of a seven month long cross-country consultation process with Canadian with disabilities. Consultations like these are a favored trend in the current federal government. Perhaps this is because they act as public evidence of some kind of action, regardless of how effective it is.

These events were heavily managed conversations. They seemed designed to give the appearance of consent, rather than provide opportunities for consensus and moving forward. At the public consultations, any participant that was given time to speak was restricted to a two-minute limit; a method that was inaccessible for many participants. There was the impression that the people who spoke were expected to be grateful for the opportunity to share their perspective, even when it’s only taken in limited amounts.

There were impressions that a lot of what was being said was being filtered out, and reframed to fit an agenda. Any comments referring to issues of discrimination in immigration, affordable housing, poverty, or anything involving active redistribution was notably left out. There was some potential raised for amending some existing regulations, but little else. The focus was clearly centered on employment, while carefully avoiding much of what keeps most disabled people in poverty.

This isn’t something new of course, in 2001 Michael J. Prince took a look at the state of Disability policy in Canada, and noted something he called deja-vu discourse as a government tactic in working with issues of disability policy. It included strategies like stressing gains made on the surface while overlooking structural gaps, consciously not taking action on particular measures, and promising additional action at some unspecified time in the distant future at which point the whole process would begin again. (Prince, 2004).

So why is this a problem? We are a country that still celebrates advocates that suggest our society would be better if we didn’t see disability. We see this during presentations at International Events like the Toronto Pan-Am Games when Rick Hansen proudly championed “Here in Canada we won’t see your disability” (Graham, 2016) This is also evident in many advertising campaigns where disabled children are framed in battle with their illnesses, or frames people as not disabled because they have other skills (Sick Kids Hospital Foundation, 2016), (Easter Seals, 2017). The dominant narrative is to bring disability into Canadian society rather than having it embraced as part of that society already.

For some of us this may be true, particularly those of us that are white, male, and cis gendered, perhaps these barriers are all they see of disability oppression. For the rest of us, disability is a construct and culture that impacts many aspects of our lives. It’s difficult to have an investment in structural change when working with those who are still invested in that system.

During the consultations I spoke of earlier, instead of reaching out to offer paid work to disabled people, they paid consulting firms to find disabled people to consult with. They were doing market research rather than accepting the expertise of disabled people in designing policies or programs. Disabled people were brought in as volunteers to act as champions, panels and facilitators, and provide unpaid consultation. This is a significant problem, and one that many disabled people are familiar with; recognition of expertise without status or compensation. Volunteers were put in a position of either feeling exploited or declining their knowledge, while government representatives proclaimed the need for more jobs for disabled people within the consultations.

The contrast between our political language around disability and the lived reality is most clearly seen when we can see past our privilege. The Excessive Demand clause in Immigration and Refugee Act is a strong example of this. I have many privileges in my life, but the one I’ve taken is for granted was my citizenship. If I had not been born a citizen of Canada I would not have been able to become one. My disability could be seen as an excessive demand on the health and social services system. This clause also impacts people with disabilities who are already citizens of Canada. As long as this exception is law, then our citizenships remain socially exceptional. It is impossible for Canadians with disabilities to find equitable treatment in this country when that which sets us apart bars other people from obtaining citizenship. We’re still sitting at the separate table.

Being a disabled person has power. Over the years since de-institutionalization, a lot of that power has been eroded by shame, doubt, striving for normalcy, and the idea that disabled people should either go to great lengths to hide this part of themselves or see disability as all that they are. During this time our political, societal, and economic structures have benefited from an invisible contributing force of disabled people. In the margins, we support economic structures though our spending habits and an intricate web of services that maintain the oppression of disabled people. By forgetting our power and hiding ourselves we remain invisible, or at least give society little reason to see us.

Policies and programs alone will not provide the systemic change that grassroots disability organization call for, and legacy organizations work to legislate. Change can only happen when a community recognizes its true power and collaborates with the community’s people live in to create that change.

In closing, I would like to finish this talk with some comments from disability activists I spoke with across the country, some from grassroots and some from legacy organizations. I asked them what they would like to see in creating a stronger disability movement.  Some suggested a greater use of technologies like slate, and conferencing systems, others pointed to a greater diversity of members that’s more representative of the communities we come from, still others pointed to great successes in working with labor, as in the struggle against community mailboxes back in 2015.

In all of these conversations there was a common thread. Grassroots and legacy organizations do see a place for each other, and to collaborate. There is also a realization that the disability community is not yet fully aware of its own power.

Yet that power still exists, as a people, we with disabilities show the world that there is no normal way; conventional ways were created by human beings, and they can be unmade. This is our shared strength. We must keep this torch lit, and visible to all who would challenge it. We can and we will take our power back.

Last night I was out for dinner with my Mom. It was a small space, and it took some time getting a table, so we chatted for a while waiting, and then came in and sat down. It was at this point that something unexpected happened. The young waitress came out with only one menu, hands it to my Mom, and asks if she’ll be ordering for me. There was a split second of stunned silence while my Mom and I processed what just happened before I could say “Excuse me?!”.

The young waitress quickly apologized, and handed me a menu. Later after we ordered our meals, my Mom called the waitress over, and asked her to apologize to her daughter. As inherited as this trait might be, it’s still embarrassing for me when my Mom calls someone out on my behalf, though perhaps not nearly as embarrassing as it was for the waitress.

She did apologize, and explained that she hadn’t interacted with disabled people before. I felt a little empathy towards her at this point, perhaps because I too have been on the receiving end of a Mom Rant, and left her with some disability pointers that I hope she’ll remember. Someone else will be getting an email with the Accessible Customer Service Standard.

If this seems at all shocking for 2016, know that it will likely continue into 2017 as well. Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities #IDPD. Disabled people across the world have been bringing attention to issues like this all day, and for decades. I’m protected with a certain amount of privilege that keeps situations like this away from me most of the time, but many people are not.

Fellow blogger Dave Hingsburger recently posted about a disabled man who was finally given agency and the power to make a major decision about his own life at the age of sixty. This is a must read, beautiful post, bring tissue.

As a disabled person, sometimes it seems like this loss of agency is something we have to live with, but it’s not. Loss of agency has much more to do with the system we live in then it does with us as disabled people. I think this is particularly important when we talk about employment, which happens to be part of the theme for this year’s #IDPD.

Let’s face facts, employers would still prefer to hire an able-bodied, neuro-normative person most of the time, especially when that potential employee is white. These are hard times to find jobs for many people, but white, educated, non-disabled people seem a little more entitled to those jobs, and we need to start talking about that with them.

Like this waitress, when you’re just doing your job, sometimes it’s hard to see the people who’ve become invisible in the process. Not unlike the indigenous peoples in Canada whose rights and traditions suddenly become invisible so our Prime Minister can approve a pipeline, create some temporary work for other people, and leave progressing our economy and environment to somebody else.

The bottom line: if we don’t talk about our agency and our rights, and making those things visible, they will be lost to someone else who is louder and more visible then we are.

So please speak out when you can, if not for you, then do it for the many of us who are still not in the conversation today. Start with writing to your MP. Talk about accessibility, talk about a Canadians with Disabilities Act, talk about pipelines. It’s time the conversation shifted.

Electro-Motive, a subsidiary of U.S. industrial giant Caterpillar Inc., wants to strong-arm workers at its London plant into a pay cut of over 50 percent, dropping hourly wages from $35 to $16.50. It is also imposing devastating cuts to benefits and pensions on members of CAW Local 27 at a time when the company has enjoyed multi-billion-dollar profits and a 20 percent boost to production over last year.

A day of action has been called by the OFL in solidarity with these workers: http://www.ofl.ca/index.php/html/index_in/stop_caterpillar_london_day_of_action_sat_jan_21_11_am/

City Council will be voting on January 17, 18 and 19 on the 2012 City budget.  At present, there are $85 million in cuts on the table, as well as, a TTC fare hike and increases to recreation user fees.  The budget includes elimination of hundreds of good City jobs – jobs that employ people who deliver vital services in our communities.  As well, the budget includes a 9.8% cut to community grants that enable nonprofit community organizations to provide much-needed programs and services across Toronto.  We need to protect our communities from these harmful cuts.
Please come out to the rally on Tuesday, January 17th at 5:30 p.m.  If you are available at any time on January 17 and 18, please come down to City Hall in Council Chambers to support our city.

For more information about the City budget:

Find out about the march

It’s not a question of if austerity will impact Canadians with disabilities, but a question of when.

We need only look over to the UK for proof. Coalition proposals with see the Disability Living Allowance cut in that country by 20%, pushing those people into increasing poverty. Hate crimes against people with disabilities are also on the rise. Some 47% of people with disabilities say attitudes towards them have worsened over the last year. A recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report concluded that “people with disabilities in the UK face harassment, insult and attack almost as a matter of routine, while a collective denial among police, government and other public bodies means little is done to challenge the situation”.

If you’ve been following disability-related news here in Canada, this situation might seem eerily familiar. With recent provincial elections in Manitoba and Ontario, there is a heightened awareness that healthcare, housing, and disability benefits in those provinces might be headed for the chopping block as the recession drags on. Consider the case of Ontario’s Special Diet benefit. When people started using the benefit regularly to bring their income to a slightly less impoverished level, McGuinty cut it back, making it much more difficult for people with disabilities to access.

In the Ontario provincial election, it was not only social assistance programs, but also accessibility legislation that came under threat. During their campaign the Tories refused to commit to advancing the cause of making Ontario a fully accessible province; they refuse to agree not to cut existing legislation, or to effectively enforce it. Municipal politicians are also unafraid to cut on the backs of people with disabilities. In Toronto, Rob Ford and his cronies have considered putting the accessible transit system and social housing on the chopping block, crucial services for people with disabilities in this city.

Much like people with disabilities in the UK, Canadians have faced high profile disability hate crimes in the past few months. In August, a man who used a wheelchair died four days after being viciously assaulted in his Winnipeg apartment. Toronto has experienced two situations involving police interaction with people with disabilities. In July, Police used handcuffs to restrain a nine-year-old disabled boy who they say “became uncontrollable” at a Toronto daycare centre. Around the same time, a man with a disability was killed during interactions with Toronto police. No one should be dying in police interactions in Toronto!

Perhaps it’s time to take a hint from across the ocean, and fight austerity before it has already won. The situations in Canada and the UK may not be the same, but they are similar. Not only are people with disabilities part of the 99%, they are typically part of the lowest 1% of the 99%. A major reason why we don’t have decent accessible housing is that the Canadian government would rather focus on things like corporate tax breaks…And the fact that 70% of people with disabilities in Ontario can’t find a job while ODSP continues to be the most steadily increasing item in the province’s budget…well that’s a more complicated issue that is partly bigotry and discrimination, and partly that disability organizations that are supposed to be helping us fight back have been pacified, their attention has been too focused on government imposed accessibility standards. We have Canada’s first women with a disability in the official opposition, but people with disabilities are still feeling powerless. History has shown that it’s movements, not legislation, that end discrimination. Since when is a government supposed to tell us which rights to fight for?

In the past two weeks, occupations have sprung up across Canada in support of similar movements in the United States and around the world in solidarity. People with disabilities are among both the occupiers and people who support them. Everyone can play a role in this movement. People with disabilities are bring given accessible supports within the occupation in Toronto that would normally take months to receive in their day-to-day lives.

We’re living in a system that really only pays lip-service to people with disabilities, and doesn’t want people realizing that their struggles are connected, so if this movement wants to change the system, and is putting the needs of people with disabilities on par with the non-disabled, then whatever the outcome, I feel that’s a movement worth supporting.

Please join us on Saturday October 29th, 12pm at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto for the Toronto Disability Pride March. Torontonians with disabilities have a voice, and it’s time we used it.

News Release August 5, 2010

The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) is calling on the Federal Government to stop its attacks on Employment Equity.

“All fair minded Canadians object to recent insinuations that unmerited candidates from equity-seeking groups are taking over all the jobs of ‘qualified white candidates’, thanks to Federal Employment Equity measures”, says John Rae, 1st Vice President of AEBC, a nationwide organization of blind and partially sighted Canadians. “If this were true, statistics would tell us that whites are no longer being hired by the federal public service, but no one has had the gall to suggest this,” adds Rae.

The AEBC Board points to recent statements from two government cabinet ministers. “Stockwell Day, President of the Treasury Board, has insinuated that the Federal Employment Equity program is barring qualified Canadians from job opportunities in the federal public service. And Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, recently stated that all Canadians should have an ‘equal opportunity to work for their government based on merit, regardless of race or ethnicity’”, says V.P. Rae.

“Employment equity programs are designed to foster merit-based hiring by helping to remove barriers to employment,” states the AEBC Vice President. “They were put in place because all too often, qualified candidates from racialized and disability communities were not being hired because of race or ethnicity. Even today the representation rate for persons with disabilities remains far, far below our percentage of the population.”

The government’s own latest figures show that more women, First Nations peoples and visible minorities worked in the public service last year than the year before, while the low proportion of employed people with disabilities stayed the same.

As of March 2009, women made up 54.7 per cent of the federal workforce, First Nations peoples made up 4.5 per cent, visible minorities made up 9.8 per cent, and people with disabilities made up 5.9 per cent. Yet the percentage of people with disabilities in the population as a whole, is about 14%.

“Employment equity has helped, contrary to the Ministers’ assertions”, Rae continues, “but much more effort is needed to bring more persons with disabilities into the public service of Canada and other workplaces across the country”.

“Rather than attacking programs that have helped, we need a government that puts time and resources into developing new programs aimed at increasing our level of representation in the federal public service and in all other workplaces across Canada”.

For further information, contact:
John Rae, 1st Vice President, Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians:

The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians is a nationwide organization of Canadians who are blind and partially sighted, whose work focuses on improving public attitudes and providing input on issues of public policy that affect our lives.

www.blindcanadians.ca