Rights Remain Out of Reach for Many Persons with Disabilities in Canada

By Nicholas Caivano
Nicholas is a Legal Fellow at Amnesty International Canada, where he oversees the organization’s strategic litigation program.
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December 3 marked the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, commemorated by the United Nations since 1992 to promote awareness and mobilize support for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in society. In 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international human rights treaty which Canada ratified in 2010.

The CRPD prohibits all discrimination on the basis of disability including refusal of reasonable accommodation relating to the full enjoyment of economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights. In February 2016, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights will review Canada’s performance in realizing the rights enshrined in the treaty. In its List of Issues published in advance of the review, the Committee asked Canada to report on progress made to protect the right to work and the right to an adequate standard of living of persons with disabilities.

For many people with disabilities in Canada, these rights remain far out of reach. Persistent discrimination leads to exclusion in the workplace and poorer employment outcomes for persons with disabilities than in the population at large.

A Statistics Canada study released this month found there were 2.3 million working-age people with disabilities in Canada, only 45 per cent of whom are employed. Another recent study found that Canadian university students with disabilities face disproportionate barriers to employment after graduation, with unemployment rates that are twice as high among graduates with disabilities. Those who do succeed at finding full-time work earn an average of $4000 to $6000 less per year than students without disabilities.

Discrimination remains widespread. Half of Canadians believe it’s understandable if an employer finds it too risky to hire someone with a physical disability, according to a new survey by the Angus Reid Institute and the Rick Hansen Foundation. A report released yesterday by the Canadian Human Rights Commission provides a similar finding, stating that half of all the discrimination complaints filed in Canada are related to disability.

Persons with invisible disabilities, such as mental illness, who are able to find work face the added dilemma of whether to disclose their condition in order to receive accommodations. Many hesitate to ask for support and it’s easy to see why—one in five employees living with a mental illness report experiencing job-related discrimination, such as being refused a transfer, having difficulty accessing training and professional development, and not advancing on the job through promotions. 

Recognizing the risk of being stigmatized by co-workers and supervisors, many employees living with invisible disabilities choose to keep their condition a secret. Those that reveal their disability may face restricted opportunities, micro-management, gossip, subtle forms of social exclusion, and over-attribution of mistakes to their condition. Hiding an invisible disability, however, denies the person the opportunity to access much-needed accommodation and support.

Canadian society has a vested interest in ensuring that people with disabilities have equal access to employment opportunities and to accommodations that allow them to work safety and effectively. Canada can advance public perception and shatter stigma in the workplace by developing law and policy that mandates equality, provides education on discrimination, and protects confidentiality.

When Canada ratified the CRPD, it committed to strengthening human rights in the country and making progress toward achieving an accessible and inclusive society for Canadians with disabilities—a society free from discrimination. The sobering statistics from recent reports indicate that we have a long way to go. In light of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, and as the United Nations review of Canada’s ESC rights in Geneva looms in the coming months, it’s high time to renew and revisit that commitment.