Michael J. Prince is Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy at the University of Victoria
Employment and Social Development Minister Jason Kenney has challenged Canadian employers to do better in training and working conditions, especially for those under-represented in the labour force.
The challenge must be put not only to employers. More strategically, the policy challenge faces the provinces, school systems, post-secondary institutions, and the federal government.
For the past quarter century, social surveys have consistently confirmed that people with disabilities remain one of the most undereducated and unemployed groups in Canada. We know that the average educational attainment for people with disabilities is lower than for people without disabilities: people with disabilities are much more likely to have high school education or less.
Looking at employment, we find that a higher proportion of youth with disabilities, who are not full time students, are more likely to hold multiple jobs in a year; they are more likely to have jobs unrelated to their education; they are more likely to not be working or attending school; and, they are more likely to live in low income households.
This means that young people with disabilities are more likely than their counterparts to be in non-standard jobs; to be underemployed; to be without employment; and to be in poverty.
Public programs for Canadians with disabilities are a disjointed patchwork of practices with uneven accessibility. Nowhere is this more evident than in programs for youth with disabilities. Transition planning and employment preparation for youth with disabilities are insufficient and ineffective in many parts of Canada.
There are encouraging practices; for example, where plans are in place with facilitators, who work with parents and families, high school teachers and local school districts, area employers and potential mentors. The aim is to secure meaningful work experiences and paid employment while the young person with a disability is in high school.
Challenges exist, however, across the country, in identifying available jobs and having readily accessible transportation, especially in rural and small communities.
Challenges exist, certainly in some school districts, facing the distressing prospect of reductions in special education assistants, speech language pathologists, and other supports for students with special needs.
Aspirations for gainful employment are not always promoted within school systems or by families who see few opportunities in the labour market or in post-secondary education for their son or daughter with a disability. Work co-op experiences are often unavailable. Parents may understandably feel too busy or too worried to see the employment potential of their teenager with a disability.
To better enable transitions to post-secondary education and employment for young people with disabilities requires closer co-operation and new investments by provincial governments and school districts in conjunction with the support of local employers, teachers and counsellors, parents and families. Policy development will require changes in the traditional practices of student advising, summer job programs, and of post-secondary institutions.
To promote inclusive learning environments, we need to invest in accessible educational and training facilities; provide a mix of classroom training and work experience; and support longer-term programming rather than just short-term activities.
In this regard, provincial governments must play a leadership role by providing accommodation grants to colleges and universities; and by funding direct services and on-site supports for post-secondary students with disabilities. Provinces already do some of this, but these programs and others need to be reviewed and modernized.
The Council of Ministers of Education Canada ought to identify students with a disability and post-secondary education as a priority theme. Surprisingly, it is not a priority at present. It should be.
Under this new theme, ministers could focus on students’ transitions from secondary schools to post-secondary education; financial assistance to both part-time and full-time students with a disability; and examine best practices on inclusive and accessible education at universities. Our institutions have much to share with one another on this noble goal of inclusive higher education.
Further, it is time that the Canada Social Transfer – the federal funding mechanism for post-secondary education across the country – is given a new policy focus, one suitable to our moment; a new focus in addressing the learning needs of those most vulnerable Canadians. A case can be made for using the federal spending power in a more purposeful and focused manner. We know that Canadians with disabilities are among the most disadvantaged citizens when it comes to education and employment. A new, specific goal of the Canada Social Transfer would be to improve the post-secondary education participation of young men and women with disabilities.
Only then will the commitments Canada signed in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities be realized.
Only then will all youth with disabilities have a reasonable opportunity to attain post-secondary education and gainful employment in their country.