In the Blog

When Working is Radical

September 7th, 2011     by Shoshana Erlich     Comments

It seems that I am something of a radical. That the things that I think, believe in and work towards are such a shift from the patterns currently entrenched in society that I am often mocked for my views and my tireless belief that eventually, we can get there.

This summer, I had my radicalism confirmed by something that was decidedly non-radical. I decided that as a student, I needed a summer job. At the time, I thought that this was actually a relatively moderate idea, after all, I am finding myself forced to subscribe to academia, and the world of student loans and independent living, and everything seems to have a price tag attached to it. Since in this society we exchange labour for funds, getting a summer job seemed to be a fairly logical and extremely non-radical proposition. However, I quickly discovered that the concept of being a young disabled person who wants to work is quite the radical concept indeed. While this post could easily talk about the extensive discrimination I have faced as a young disabled person in the workforce, what I think is much more interesting are the broader systemic structures that force young disabled workers into positions of extreme vulnerability within the workforce.

One thing that strikes me time and time again is how little young workers in general are protected within the workforce. Students often work part-time or temporary jobs with little to no job security whatsoever. Also, these jobs typically provide few if any benefits. I recognize that this also holds true for many “adult” positions as well, and not everyone in this world by far is fortunate enough to have benefits associated with their job, but this holds a particular problem for young disabled workers. For young disabled workers, particularly those with chronic illnesses, working can be a bit like gambling. The threat of being unable to work due to illness constantly hangs over you, but you have to continue and hope that you will get lucky. After all, if you were to get sick and be unable to continue working you wouldn’t have the benefit of any short or long-term disability benefits, nor are you necessarily protected to ensure that your job will still be there after you are able to return to work. Also with chronic illness, it can often be rather dicey if you would qualify for disability benefits from the state (such as the Ontario Disability Support Benefit as an example) because they often require that you are unable to work for at least 12 months due to your disability. When these kinds of benefits are offered to full-time permanent employees, but not also to the same company’s part-time or temporary employees who are often students or other young workers, it makes the assumption that young people who are able to work are not already or at risk of becoming disabled. It creates the expectation that young people who are disabled will not be in the workforce, and also that young people who are currently in the workforce are not disabled. There is currently no pressure on businesses and organizations (aside from unionized positions) to ensure that all employees of an organization receive adequate benefits, and this makes young disabled workers particularly vulnerable.

Furthermore, employment supports that are often accessible to adults in times of unemployment due to the job market or illness, such as Employment Insurance (EI) are often unaccessible to students. EI for example has a stipulation that a person must not be in school for more than 10 hours a week, otherwise they are considered to not be available for full-time work and do not qualify for any EI program, be it regular or sickness benefits. This is particularly damaging to students because with the rising cost of tuition it is not uncommon to see students working 2 or more jobs, potentially adding up to full-time hours on top of a full course load to be able to afford both their tuition and living expenses. If a student was managing to work full-time hours while attending classes prior to requiring EI they should not be placed into a position where they are forced to choose between their studies and being able to financially survive. Again young disabled workers are placed at a disadvantage because unless their disability happens to occur during the 4 months of the year when they are not in classes they cannot depend on the same government services that every other Canadian has access to.

There is also a huge assumption that disabled youth are totally disabled to the point of never being able to enter the workforce in any capacity. Programs offered to assist disabled people in finding jobs are often tokenistic. For example, whereas the majority of youth employment programs offer subsidies to employers to encourage them to hire youth registered with employment agencies over those who may have more experience, programs such as Entry Point, often offered at those same agencies, offer no employment subsidies to employers. This means that a disabled candidate for a position would offer no benefit, whereas someone who has managed to qualify into a different program would offer significant benefits to employers. Also, disabled youth who are receiving long-term disability benefits such as ODSP, are actually penalized for working, and for many youth it may not be worth the hassles associated with working to even enter the workforce at all. In fact, the solution to inequalities related to disability have often involved throwing money at the disabled person and making it an individual problem rather than critically examining the systemic barriers that create these inequalities to begin with.

Finally, there is the very real and large issue of discrimination in the workplace. Far too many disabled people are unaware that the human rights code (in Ontario) specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment. This means that a workplace cannot fire a disabled person for being disabled, and also cannot rightly refuse reasonable job accommodations (unless they can prove that the accommodations would pose undue hardship, and that they have attempted to accommodate the disability up to the point where it becomes undue hardship). However, often young people are unaware of their rights in the workplace in general (and is why often youth employment programs seek to ensure that young workers are educated about their rights in the work place) and disabled persons may be even more so, due to the previous belief that disabled persons are unable to work and therefore do not need this knowledge. Also, many people do not realize that the human rights code is a complaints-driven process, where if you believe that your rights have been violated in some way, you need to file a complaint with the human rights tribunal, and be able to prove that the discrimination occurred.

Many of these policies and programs have implications far beyond disabled youth to youth in general, and both disabled and non-disabled workers in general. It is just incredibly unfortunate that the confluence of two incredibly vulnerable workforce groups (young workers and disabled workers) creates a climate where young disabled people are at an increased disadvantage in being able to find, successfully compete and maintain jobs and have a decreased amount of protection and recourse when they are unable to work due to disability.

Tags: disability, on the job

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