K.J. Aiello is a Toronto-based freelance writer.
Because of my disability, I spent almost two decades trying to find stable, gainful employment. I never found it. Instead, I teetered between employment, underemployment and unemployment. I struggled to pay my bills, sometimes choosing between food, rent or mounting student debt payments.
But here’s the deal: I had little to no ability to cope; my meagre sick days were used up before the end of the first quarter of the year. Oftentimes, I was unable to obtain a doctor’s note or even understand what was wrong with me. I was afraid, and, let’s be honest, I was told more than once that maybe the job just wasn’t for me.
But what if it was? What if the only barrier I was facing was lack of resources and support in my employment to be able to complete my job duties? I could hardly leave my 330-square-foot apartment, or sleep through the night, or control the racing thoughts and occasional delusions and hallucinations. I kept all of that to myself for fear I would lose my job and become just another homeless statistic. But maybe, given the right tools, I would have succeeded in my work.
While I’ve been lucky enough to find a way to employ myself, working at my own pace and taking time away when I need it, I’m one of the few disabled people who have that freedom.
Over the past few months, as the pandemic has continued, the employment situation in Canada has become worse. Disabled folks, who were already among the most vulnerable demographics, are living in even more precarious situations.
Sarah Jama, co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario, has concerns for disabled folks. “It’s going to get even harder to find a job if you have a disability. There are just so many [barriers] to list, in terms of the way the pandemic makes [employment] even harder to navigate.”
For those disabled individuals who were able to work prior to the pandemic, the job options were still limited, and Ms. Jama says this is because of attitudinal barriers.
Mari Ramsawakh is one of the subjects of the current season of TVO’s Employable Me – a docuseries that follows disabled and neurodiverse job-seekers navigating the challenges of gainful employment. Ms. Ramsawakh argues that disabled individuals have been forced to find creative solutions throughout their daily lives, and it’s that creativity that potential employers are missing out on. Daniel Share-Strom, also a subject on Employable Me, shares similar sentiments. Mr. Share-Strom, who is autistic, finds it difficult to make eye-contact during a conversation and that, he says, makes it difficult to get past the interview stage. He struggles with employment because of the same attitudinal barriers that Ms. Jama argues are pervasive.
Although the country is inching back toward normalcy, there are still people finding themselves unable to return to work owing to the onset of or worsening mental-health issues. “I’ve been practising going on 20 years, and I’ve never seen so many [mental-health disability] claims in such a short period of time,” employment lawyer Lior Samfiru says. Individuals who had a manageable mental illness prior to the pandemic are now finding their symptoms exacerbated to the point they are unable to return to work. Many people who were previously mentally healthy are suffering with the onset of mental illness directly related to the pandemic. Mr. Samfiru says this isn’t going to go away any time soon.
For 20 years, I have oscillated between mentally healthy and unwell, and I’ve never seen disability and mental health mentioned in the same conversation as much as I have lately. It’s strange for me to witness something being thrust urgently and with serious consequential considerations to the forefront, when I have already felt the ramifications of mental illness for half of my life. And I worry. I’ve experienced discrimination, unethical employer practices and been the recipient of harmful language in the workplace regarding both my own mental illness and mental-health issues in general. Now that we can no longer avoid mental-health-related disabilities in the workplace, how will this look going forward, particularly into a second wave, which is a very real likelihood?
From a legal perspective, Mr. Samfiru has reservations about how the mounting mental-health challenges will be handled in the workplace. There are significant complexities to mental-health disability, and many mentally ill workers are left unable to advocate for themselves. “I think that our legal system has to come into the 21st century,” he says. But when will that happen? When will the welcoming of disabled folks in the workplace, with proper accommodations and healthy attitudes, be the status quo?
“People with disabilities in this country have been left to fail,” Ms. Jama says.
I can’t argue with that. Maybe, with the rapidly changing workplace landscape, employers will begin to work with, not apart from, disability. Maybe the new face of employment will be a framework that doesn’t require disabled people to fight for even minimal assistance. Maybe creativity will be shouldered by everyone, not just the disabled. At least I hope so.
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