GUEST COMMENT: People with disabilities are not the damaged goods of the labour force

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Columnist Therese Estacion is a resident of Yellowknife. About three years ago, a rare bacterial infection led to the amputation of both her legs below the knee and some fingers.

Pursuing one’s vocational dreams as a person with a disability can be a seriously tough endeavour due to ableism.

Ableism is a type of discrimination that is hurled against individuals with disabilities, or differently abled people. It devalues the potential of individuals with disabilities as workers, and often results in stigma, prejudice and ignorance.

Ableism intersects with other discriminatory behaviours like racism and homophobia, but is unique in that it is has still yet to break through mainstream talk regarding oppression and the body.

It is also incredibly complex since it refers to the discrimination of all peoples with disabilities, and we are a varied lot.

Ableism is made even more complicated by the role subjectivity plays when discussing disability. How one describes her, his or their disability – which includes needs, symptoms, frequency of physical manifestations etc. – may not be evident to a person who is able-bodied.

For instance, individuals with chronic fatigue are often simply labeled as lazy, people with learning disabilities are told to quicken the pace and people with depression are told to just get over it.

As a result, believing in what a person with a disability says about their daily experiences may be difficult for a lot of able-bodied people since a person’s disability may not be quantifiable.

My disability is pretty obvious. As a result, my needs are not easily subject to suspicion. However, I know that my needs as a person with amputations are vastly different from someone who has a less conspicuous disability like an autoimmune disorder, ADHD, down syndrome or an autism spectrum disorder.

The spectrum of disability is so wide that I myself have been caught harbouring ignorant assumptions.

There is a common thread, however, that bonds individuals with disabilities. It is in the way ableism impacts our lives. Ableism – like most isms – has an adverse effect on the opportunities we have and on our identities. Regarding our participation in the labour market, the numbers look bleak.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2011, the employment rate of Canadians aged 25 to 64 with disabilities was 49 per cent, compared to 79 per cent for Canadians without a disability.

This is no surprise since the structural barriers individuals with disabilities face have yet to be fully examined. What stands out more, though, is the work potential people with disabilities – both mild and severe – have.

Work potential refers to the value employees place on a potential worker with a disability. The same report states that in 2016, 645,000 individuals with disabilities were able to work but were not working despite applying for jobs that were defined as inclusive.

Is this because individuals with disabilities aren’t hustling? I doubt it. I conjecture unchecked ableism might be the culprit.

You may question my speculations. However, I assure you that there are more business owners, institutions and organizations out there who are afraid of hiring individuals with disabilities than you think.

Ableism can pop out of whatever dingy cavern it has been silently hiding quite unexpectedly.

It views the capabilities of people with disabilities through the lens of an able-bodied person, and by making the person with the disability an other it says, “There is no possible way they can do (fill in the job/task/activity) because I have never seen one of them do it before.”

In the narrow world view of ableism, a person with a disability becomes a disturbing force. Hiring someone with a disability, in their mind, means more work for them.
Imagined scenarios of ineptitudes begin to unfold. Bizarre safety hazards arise. And opportunity for individuals with disabilities becomes muddled and placed out of reach.

I am not making this up. This actually happened to me here in Yellowknife when the business owner I approached about work – which I was actually overqualified for – told me that she needed someone who could “use the keyboard” – for the record I am not dictating this opinion piece, I assure you.

She also claimed I would be too tired standing on my prosthetic legs (even though standing for long periods of time was not an essential task related to the job and employers do have a duty to accommodate their employees as long as it does not cause them undue hardship).

Even if I could provide her with my typing speed or stand on my feet for long periods of time – and what if I needed the use of a wheelchair? What then? – I’m sure she would have had a revolving door of excuses at the ready.

To go beyond what you know to be true, normal or your own personal biases requires a lot of energy and courage. Hiring someone with a disability can be frightening. But labour laws have progressed over the years to ensure that people with disabilities and other minority groups have a fair chance of finding employment and keeping their jobs.

You cannot simply turn someone away or refuse to provide accommodations because dealing with a worker’s disability makes you uncomfortable – undue hardship is the only legal barometer that enables an employer to do so.

In the end, the gatekeepers to employment will only isolate themselves if they continue to hold onto discriminatory hiring and work practices. Worse, they will encounter some serious heat from advocacy groups and the Human Rights Commission.

Besides, being closed off or acquiring some sort of ability xenophobia is one of the main reasons why certain empires have fallen to dust.

Diversity is good. New ideas and new blood have always played an important role in evolution and have prevented many a monarchy from decaying.

Times are changing. Individuals with disabilities are no longer denied a proper education, institutionalized or hidden in attics.

We are no longer the family secret.

Neither are we the damaged goods of the labour force.