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Over the past few weeks, Statistics Canada has released new material covering disability, accessibility and employment in Canada. A report on accessibility in Canada (based on the 2022 Canadian Survey on Disability, CSD) and a related study about the labour market characteristics of people with disabilities provide critical information about the challenges facing the disabled community. 

While the federal government has committed to making Canada “barrier-free” by 2040, increasing accessibility, particularly in employment, and reducing poverty among those with disabilities, these studies show that there is still plenty left to be done. People with disabilities continue to experience worse employment outcomes and higher rates of poverty than those without disabilities, a situation that is almost entirely the result of poor policy design. 

As the first study shows, between 2017 and 2022, the disability rate — the share of Canadians living with one or more disabilities — increased by 5 percentage points, going from 22 to 27 per cent. In 2022, nearly 8 million people in Canada reported having a disability. 

Statistics Canada classifies disabilities as mild, moderate, severe and very severe. Among those with one or more disabilities, 39 per cent reported their disability as mild, 20 per cent reported their disability as moderate, while 20 and 21 per cent classified their disabilities as severe and very severe, respectively. 

It was among the youngest Canadians that disability prevalence grew the most between the five years separating the two Canadian Surveys on Disability. Among youth aged 15 to 24, disability grew by 7 percentage points, while it tracked the general trend of 5 percentage points among those in the core age group of 25 to 44.  

In 2022, disability rates rose with age, with one in five youth aged 15 to 24, one in four adults aged 25 to 64, and two in four adults 65 years and older reporting a disability. Among all disability types, mental health-related disabilities increased the most between 2017 and 2022. 

Among youth, the most common type of disability was mental-health related, while for older Canadians disabilities related to pain, flexibility and mobility were most common. Overall, women were more likely to have disabilities related to pain and mental health than men across age groups. For working-age adults, disability categories were similar, though mental health-related disabilities ranked higher. 

Women across age groups were more likely to have a disability than men. The CSD reports that in 2022 women had a disability rate of 30 per cent, while the rate for men was 24 per cent. As the data demonstrate, the disability rate gap is widest between younger women and men and tends to narrow with age. For example, young women were more than twice as likely to have a mental-related disability than young men (19 per cent vs. 9 per cent). 

When it comes to employment outcomes, StatCan’s studies demonstrate that disability is a significant factor. 

Overall, persons with disabilities aged 25 to 64 had a significantly lower employment rate than similarly aged persons without disabilities, according to the CSD 2022 (62 per cent vs. 78 per cent). Moreover, employment rates decreased as the severity of disabilities increased. Persons with very severe disabilities had an employment rate of just 30 per cent, while those with mild disabilities had a rate of 75 per cent. 

Disability has a significantly greater impact on the employment prospects of men than it does for women. As well, disability has a greater negative employment impact for those with lower levels of education. As educational attainment rises, employment prospects for persons with disabilities improve. 

At the same time, some progress was made in recent years. While employment rates for those with mild and very severe disabilities were stable between 2016 and 2021 (the reference years for the last two Canadian Surveys on Disability), employment increased by roughly 5 percentage points among persons with moderate and severe disabilities. This was certainly a step in the right direction, though the progress failed to close the employment gap with the non-disabled. Furthermore, such improvements were uneven. For example, among women 25 to 34 years of age with more severe disabilities, employment dropped from 59 per cent to 43 per cent between the two surveys. 

More recent Labour Force Survey (LFS) data show that the employment rate of persons with disabilities shot up slightly by 1.5 percentage points between 2022 and 2023, likely buoyed by a tighter post-pandemic labour market. Yet, at the same time, the unemployment rate among this group continued to be notably higher than among those without disabilities, 7.6 per cent compared to 4.6 per cent.  

As both the CSD and LFS figures demonstrate, part-time work is more prevalent among those with disabilities than it is among those without disabilities. Sixteen per cent of persons with disabilities worked fewer than 30 hours per week in 2021, compared to 13 per cent among the non-disabled. 

These worse employment outcomes persist despite many people with disabilities reporting a desire to work. 

StatCan tracks the “potential for work” among the disabled under a “best-case scenario” of “an inclusive labour market without discrimination, with full accessibility and accommodation.” As the CSD study reports, more than 741,000 persons with disabilities have a potential for work in “an inclusive labour market.” This amounts to roughly two in five (42 per cent) persons with disabilities between the ages of 25 and 64. 

Not only is the current situation discriminatory in its denial of employment opportunities to the disabled, it is a vast waste of human, economic and productive potential. Despite employers having a legal “duty to accommodate,” huge numbers of persons with disabilities are shut out of the labour market. 

Of course, employment inaccessibility translates into lost potential earnings and lower incomes. In 2020-constant dollars, persons with disabilities had median after-tax annual incomes $7,270 lower than those without disabilities. The severity of one’s disability further widens this income gap. In 2021, the median income of the severely disabled was more than 30 per cent lower than the median income of the non-disabled. As well, women across all disability statuses earned less than men. 

Unsurprisingly, persons with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty compared to those without disabilities: 10 per cent vs. 7 per cent. As well, the share of the disabled living in poverty increases with disability severity. 

The federal government promised to address poverty among the disabled through a new Canada Disability Benefit, though its size, design and rollout have been criticized by advocates and policy analysts.

Such disappointment can be added to the list when it comes to Canada’s policy approach to those with disabilities. Disability support benefits among the provinces remain punishingly low. In fact, Canada is among the most miserly when it comes to what the OECD classifies as “spending on incapacity,” which includes sickness, disability and occupational injury benefits. In 2020, Canada spent just 0.8 per cent of its GDP on these benefits and services, fifth lowest ahead of Turkey, Costa Rica, Columbia, and Mexico. The top ranking spenders on “incapacity,” Norway and Denmark, each spent 4.5 per cent of GDP on disability support in 2019.

The two troves of data from Statistics Canada should serve as a further wake-up call. They demonstrate that while we are making strides in some areas, we are still largely failing people with disabilities. 

An equitable economy wouldn’t squander the talent and potential of the disabled by denying them work opportunities or the accommodations necessary to thrive. 

A just and caring society wouldn’t withhold necessary cash benefits and consign to poverty those who are unable to work for pay. 

Over the last several decades, labour and the left have done a better job of including the disability community within our movement and prioritizing its demands. But there is still a long road ahead to build an economy and social welfare state that is truly accessible, solidaristic, and just.

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