The facts are undeniable. Persons with disabilities are excluded from the Canadian labour market. Although 15.5% of the Canadian population has a disability, these individuals are less likely than their non-disabled counterparts to have jobs. Barriers that tend to exclude persons with disabilities from the labour market include discrimination in employment practices, lack of access to training and educational opportunities, negative employer attitudes, and the ineffectiveness of federal employment equity and human rights legislation. The coming federal election gives the disability community an opportunity to put forward an employment agenda designed to combat these barriers.

The first agenda item is the development and adoption by each level of government of a comprehensive and co-ordinated national strategy on training and employment for persons with disabilities. The goal of the strategy is to achieve mainstream employment. As persuasively argued by the Roeher Institute in its report On Target?, for such a strategy or policy framework to be effective "it would have to incorporate a commitment to ensuring that needed supports, educational and training opportunities, and co-ordination services are in place…Responsibility for actualizing the policy must be clearly vested, and effective accountability mechanisms must be established…New institutional arrangements and formal agreements are required to give effect to the policy framework and to co-ordinate effectively efforts and resources across levels of government and departments." The appropriateness of the strategy is dependent on persons with disabilities and their organizations being full partners in its development.

Many Canadians with disabilities are encountering difficulty in accessing training opportunities that would provide them with the skills necessary to enter the labour force. The Canadian government has increased its utilization of the Unemployment Insurance (UI) account to provide training programs for unemployed workers. Workers on Unemployment Insurance are eligible for training. At the same time, the federal government has made major cuts to Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) training funds. CRF funds are used for training persons ineligible for UI. Persons with disabilities are less likely to be in the labour force and making contributions to UI. They are therefore usually not eligible for UI training dollars and must rely on the shrinking training resources available through the CRF account.

If persons with disabilities are ever to make the transition into the labour force successfully, the government of Canada must stop cutting CRF funds. In fact, these funds need to be increased. In addition, the Canadian government must set a reasonable target for the utilization of CRF funds for the purpose of training persons with disabilities. The allocation of CRF funds for the training of persons with disabilities should correspond to the representation of persons with disabilities in the Canadian population. A 15% target of CRF funds would increase and secure training opportunities for persons with disabilities.

We have made few job gains over the years since the passage of the federal Employment Equity Act in 1986. The numbers of persons with disabilities in the federally regulated workforce has increased less than one percentage point from 1.6% in 1987 to 2.4% in 1991. Under the act, federally regulated businesses are required to submit an annual report to the federal government identifying the number of persons with disabilities in their employ. Employers are not required, however, to submit employment equity plans consisting of goals and timetables.

Employers subject to the Federal Contractors Program (FCP) must certify a commitment to implement employment equity and are subject to compliance reviews. The FCP as government policy and not legislation can be subject to political interpretation and interference. The progress of contractors in achieving equity goals is not public information. The public can determine how many employers are in the program and how many are deemed to be in compliance; however, there is no information on employer progress or whether employers are achieving employment equity. The Employment Equity Act should be amended to include the FCP, including goals and timetables.

To participate in the labour force, people with disabilities may require a number of accommodations ranging from technical aids and structural changes to the work site to on-the-job personal care support. The need for accommodations in the area of rigid employment hiring standards are required by some persons with disabilities. Failure to provide these types of accommodations is discrimination. The duty to accommodate (to the point of undue hardship) should be a statutory obligation of employers, and employer defenses of reasonableness and undue hardship in any particular situation should not amount to automatic exclusion. Human rights bodies need to put in place administrative processes to carefully scrutinize claims of undue hardship. The Canadian Human Rights Act must be amended to include the duty to accommodate.

Throughout time society has regarded disability as a negative with few if any redeeming qualities, and a drain on community/national resources. Cultural, social, and economic institutions have tended to ignore or dismiss persons with disabilities. We are devalued in society because of our disabilities. Being thus devalued we are relegated to positions outside the mainstream of everyday life and without an opportunity to contribute to our community and society.

This devaluation extends to the labour market where we are regarded as a marginal part of the labour force. Our integration into the labour force is considered an expensive burden to the state and business. Today we are comforted in knowing that such extreme positions are rarely verbalized, at least in polite society. However, these assumptions and values are still the basis of many employer attitudes.

To overcome these negative attitudes the federal government should, in consultation with persons with disabilities and their organizations, develop and implement a comprehensive public awareness strategy directed at employers. The goal of the strategy would be to improve the labour market position of persons with disabilities. The message of the strategy is the need to integrate persons with disabilities into the primary labour force by eliminating systemic barriers, thereby improving the competitiveness of the Canadian economy and reducing the cost to the taxpayer of maintaining persons with a disability in a dependent state.

Persons with disabilities have often been perceived as needing "rehabilitation" rather than jobs or training. There have been services provided relating to disabilities through the Vocational Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons Agreement, along with programs through insurance agencies or workers’ compensation, but rarely has disability been incorporated into mainstream economic and employment policy. Perhaps there is some hope in the creation of the new "superministry" of Human Resources and Labour. This new structure incorporates parts of income support from Health and Welfare Canada with the labour and employment programs of Labour and Employment and Immigration. Although yet untested, this new approach could lead the way to better co-ordination and integration of programs and services, which is what people with disabilities have been asking for all along.

Our community is a significant proportion of the Canadian population. As consumers and potential recipients of training and employment resources, we are major stakeholders in the Canadian labour market. It is imperative that our voices be heard and considered. For government, business and labour to ignore or exclude us serves to marginalize further a large segment of the Canadian population. Our inclusion as a labour market stakeholder and partner has been recognized as a principle by the Canadian Labour Force Development Board (CLFDB). Inclusion of persons with disabilities in this manner must be encouraged and extended to provincial and local level CLFDB structures and industrial sector bodies. Broadly speaking, we must be meaningfully consulted on employment and training issues and the allocation of resources.

In summary, the employment agenda for persons with disabilities includes:
- a comprehensive and co-ordinated national strategy on training and employment;
- an increase in CRF funds for training purposes and 15% of CRF funds targeted for persons with disabilities;
- an amendment of the Employment Equity Act to include the federal contractor program, including goals and timetables;
- an amendment of the Canadian Human Rights Act to include the duty to accommodate;
- the development and implementation of a comprehensive public awareness strategy directed at employers;
- meaningful consultation between persons with disabilities and government on employment and training issues and the allocation of resources.