Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Disability Rights on "Largest Minority"

Tonight at 9PM on WBAI (New York) "Largest Minority" will be talking disability rights. 

I'm lucky to be joining the chat to talk about my research with some amazing academics/advocates. 

Check out the live-stream!

If you miss it you can also check out the archived interview, as well as other archived pieces with disability related discussions on their website. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Neoliberal Assault on Disability Rights

If you are in New York on Thursday October 4th, consider checking out this talk I will be a part of at NYU.  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

When will workers with Intellectual Disabilities get a fair wage?

A report about unionized workers at a state owned building in Ohio being replaced by non-unionized workers with intellectual disabilities caught my eye this week. While the report details the problematic nature of replacing unionized employees with non-unionized employees, for me this particular case speaks directly to the kinds of issues my own research around disability and employment seeks to address. 

On the surface this case illustrates the way unionized work has been demonized in recent years and positioned as a luxury taxpayers can no longer afford. Yet, upon closer examination this is clearly not the case. Indeed as the report illustrates, unionized employees were struggling to support their families. 

While a spokesperson for the Department of Administrative Services defended this move by stating that this move was also in accordance with state policy around hiring persons with disabilities, this line of reason is problematic for several reasons. While gaining employment for persons with disabilities, specifically persons with intellectual disabilities (who face significant employment barriers), is important, this issue is far more complex. 

When we as a community advocate for paid employment, we are not just seeking a paycheck. Fair and equitable employment includes benefits, job protection, opportunities for advancement, and the same wages non-disabled workers receive. In this particular case, the state has eliminated unionized positions while at the same time bringing down the average hourly wage of $10 for non-disabled unionized workers, to $7.85 an hour for workers with intellectual disabilities. While persons with intellectual disabilities may have found employment, there should be no debate that there is a significant economic benefit for the state in reducing wages and benefits. 

There is also no question that with this move the state is benefiting from the exploitation of workers with disabilities. By contracting this labour through Lott Industries (a service organization for persons with intellectual disabilities), the state has reduced their overall costs by $75,000 (not at all surprising since the working conditions have been drastically altered under this new arrangement as Lott industries' 'participants' are non-unionized). The trend of contracting out to disability organizations whose mandate is to find "employment opportunities" for persons with intellectual disabilities highlights problematic aspects within the disability service sector that see these organizations operating like for-profit companies rather than as advocates for social and economic equity. Although veiled in the rhetoric of 'opportunities for employment', participants do not receive the same wages or benefits of their non-disabled peers, and are often reduced to menial and repetitive tasks with little or no opportunity for advancement. 

Fair and equitable wages and working conditions for persons with intellectual disabilities are   in the best interest of employees with disabilities. Therefore any 'disability organization' that gains a competitive advantage by 'selling' the labour of persons with disabilities at a reduced rate is directly profiting from the marginalized economic status of workers with disabilities. 

Despite being framed as an act of goodwill by the state towards the disability community, there are no 'winners' when wages are reduced and benefits are cut. As a community, we should be outraged when employment opportunities for persons with disabilities are advanced on the grounds that workers with disabilities are less deserving than their non-disabled peers.  

Monday, July 23, 2012

Embracing Disability as a Valued Part of the Human Condition

The recent ruling by British Columbia's Supreme Court to allow Gloria Taylor, a woman with a disability, to end her life has profound impacts for the disability community. While much of the public discourse around this issue is framed in terms of individual choice, the issue of suicide (assisted or otherwise) and disability extends beyond individual cases, as this debate reinforces the notion that disability is automatically linked to a reduced quality of life. 

Rhonda Wiebe, who co-chairs the Council of Canadians with Disabilities' (CCD) ending of life ethics committee wrote a brilliant and eloquent piece in the Winnipeg Free Press that captures the impact these kinds of cases have on Canadians with disabilities. I would encourage anyone wanting to learn more about the disability communities views on this issue to read this piece. 

To add to this issue, I want to share my own discomfort with this debate. Having a sibling with Down syndrome at a time when technology to screen and abort children with Down syndrome is met with overwhelming approval (over 90% of those who learn their child has Down syndrome through these tests will abort), has made the 'quality of life' debate that much more important to me. 

The assumption is almost always that having Down syndrome means a life not worth living. I can assure you that this is not the case. Our peers with Down syndrome are valued and contributing members of society. Down syndrome does not condemn individuals to a life of pain and suffering, nor does its presence disrupt families, or drain communities of resources. Yet, when the issue of prenatal screening is debated, these are the misconceptions that those unfamiliar with Down syndrome tend to embrace as the truth. These notions in turn inform public perception and policy and negatively impact the lives of those with Down syndrome. 

The foundation of current discourse around disability and quality of life issues is based on misinformed, negative, and stereotypical notions of disability. More problematically, we have excluded people with disabilities, who are the true experts in lived experience, almost entirely from this debate. Including these voice and their lived experiences would surly allow us to have a more informed debate.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Legacy of Exploitation: Intellectual disability, unpaid labor, & disability services

The New Politics Summer 2012 issue has a symposium on Disability Rights. 

My piece, "A Legacy of Exploitation: Intellectual disability, unpaid labor, & disability services", takes a historical look at the legacy of unpaid work for persons with intellectual disabilities. 

While I'll be adding more as my own research progresses, this piece provides an overview of the issue of unpaid labour and intellectual disability. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Q & A About My Research

Carleton's Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs did a little Q & A with me about my research. The article can be found online here. Below is the text.

For more information about Carleton's programs or funding visit their website.

Vanier Scholar Gives Back to the Community

In 2010, Carleton PhD student Jihan Abbas was awarded an inaugural Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS) that provided $50,000 a year for three years to Canada’s top doctoral students. We thought we would check in with her today to find out what she has been doing since that time.

Q – What kind of a difference has the Vanier Scholarship made in your life?

It has made a tremendous difference. From a research standpoint, it has provided me with the resources necessary to support a participatory research project. Having this support has also enabled me to develop as a scholar as I’ve had the opportunity to write, present, and collaborate with other scholars.

Q – Could you have completed your grad studies at Carleton without this scholarship?

Without the Vanier Scholarship, it certainly would have been difficult to pursue my PhD. The demands of a graduate degree are intense, and without financial support, it would have been impossible for me to juggle my degree, family, and employment, especially given the challenges posed by the current environment. I’m incredibly fortunate to have had this opportunity.

Q – Since we last talked three years ago, are you still researching and working in the area of disability and equality rights?

Yes, my research project is looking at persons with intellectual disabilities and unpaid labour in the home, community, and workplace. I was the former director of research and policy for Independent Living Canada and was fortunate enough to serve as a community co-facilitator with the city of Ottawa to help support the training goals of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. I was also on the board of directors for ARCH Disability Law Centre. [ARCH Disability Law Centre is a specialty community legal aid clinic dedicated to defending and advancing the equality rights of people with disabilities in Ontario.] I continue to work as an advocate in the community.

My research is participatory so much of what I am doing is in the community connecting with individuals, advocates and agencies. It’s a valuable experience to step outside of the literature and place yourself on the front lines of the issue. It’s a process that allows you to really appreciate how issues are shaped and experienced by stakeholders.

Q -What are a couple of your major research findings since that time?

We tend to measure contributions through paid labour, and because persons with intellectual disabilities are often not part of the formal labour process, their contributions tend to be ignored. What I am learning from engaging with the community is that there are valuable unpaid contributions taking place that we need to acknowledge and support. My research is also reinforcing the importance of providing a space for the community to be heard. I hope that by illustrating the value of this unpaid labour, I can contribute to the inclusion debate and demonstrate what we collectively gain from equity.

Q – What kind of support have you had from your advisory team and department?

I’ve been lucky to have such a supportive and engaged committee. I am working with Andrea Doucet, now at Brock University, who has been incredibly supportive of my research and really pushed me to explore alternative ways I can connect and communicate with the community. Andrea has been great at helping me to identify the threads within my research that I am most passionate about and find ways to position my research within the broader employment and disability debate. Janet Siltanen and Xiaobei Chen also sit on my committee and were instrumental in moving me through the comprehensive exam and proposal process. My committee has been incredible and really helped me zero in on the kinds of contributions I wanted to make through my own research. It’s been a very collaborative process and has certainly helped develop my research and writing.

Q – Why did you originally decide to pursue your grad studies at Carleton?

For me, Carleton made sense because studying here allowed me to remain connected to my community and continue to engage as an advocate. In terms of disability issues, Ottawa is a great place to be. I’ve had the opportunity to connect with incredible people though my research (individuals, scholars, advocates, peers) and that has helped to make this such a valuable experience.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Ottawa Area Focus Group: persons with intellectual disabilities and unpaid work

A new focus group is taking place here at the OILRC and the coordinator is looking for participants to discuss the unpaid work of persons with intellectual disabilities in the home, community, and workplace.

Participants will receive a small honorarium.

Snacks and refreshments will also be provided.

When: Thursday March 22, 2012 at 1-3 PM

Where: The Ottawa Independent Living Resource Centre

If you are interested in sharing your experiences and providing important input to this research initiative, please contact, Jihan Abbas, by phone at 613-218-1160 or by email

This project has been reviewed and cleared by the Carleton University Research Ethics Board: 613-520-2517.