Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The problem isn't recruitment: employees with disabilities and the federal government

According to a recent report by the Public Service Commission, not only is the federal government not recruiting enough employees with disabilities, but recruitment rates for this group have actually declined over the past three years. While the report suggests the federal government needs to develop new strategies to attract potential employees, as an advocate, the declining rate of recruitment for employees with disabilities speaks to larger problems with accessibility and equity.

In Canada, persons with disabilities experience disproportionately high rates of unemployment (10.4% for persons with disabilities vs 6.8% for persons without disabilities). It is important to keep in mind that these measures do not include working-age persons with disabilities who are not employed but filtered out through official definitions of 'unemployed.' What those of us advocating for disability rights do know is that persons with disabilities want to work, yet persistent barriers continue to prevent their inclusion in the workplace.

If the federal government is experiencing declining rates of recruitment for employees with disabilities, this is more than an issue of 'attracting' potential employees. This speaks directly to the governments lack of commitment on all matters related to disability and accessibility.

Last fall Donna Jodhan launched a constitutional challenge because she was unable to apply online for federal government jobs because the forms were inaccessible. The federal government failed to acknowledge existing barriers and instead reinforced that the website conformed to 'common look and feel' standards, despite the reality that these standards failed to remove barriers for some within the disability community. If potential employees face barriers within the application process itself, what level of understanding and accommodation can employees with disabilities expect once hired?

Furthermore, the federal government sent a strong message to Canadians with disabilities when it recently cancelled the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS) which gathered information essential to understanding existing barriers. Although PALS certainly had room to improve, it did provide those of us within the community with important information that helped strengthen the case for increased investments in disability related issues.

If the federal government is sincere about increasing the representation of persons with disabilities in its workforce, it needs to start acting as leader with respect to access and inclusion. This means demonstrating a real and renewed commitment to disability issues - a commitment that is all but impossible given the current backdrop of cuts and the lack of funding for disability organizations. This also means acting as a leader with respect to accessibility, which requires a response beyond 'good enough' and instead demonstrates that the federal government is commitment to full accessibility throughout the recruitment process and within each on of its departments. Until that time comes it is difficult to imagine any strategies that will ensure greater representation of persons with disabilities within the federal workforce.