What the job market is like when you have a disability

Barriers to finding employment mean that talented candidates often go unnoticed
By Sarah Trick - Published on Nov 20, 2017
The rate of participation in the labour force is 68 per cent for those with mild disabilities, and only 26 per cent for those with severe disabilities. PeopleImages/iStock



​Job hunting is a frustrating and painful exercise for everyone, and the job market is challenging for everyone. But when you have a disability, you often can't even get in the door, literally.

I am a wheelchair user who also has various learning disabilities and mental health diagnoses, all of which means that finding and keeping a job is more difficult for me: I have been out of graduate school for more than a year now and have yet to find even an entry-level position. I don’t think this is because of prejudice in the most obvious sense; I don't think there's some shadowy cabal of prejudiced people actively working to deny me and others like me jobs. The reasons for my continued lack of employment are complex and varied — stigma plays only a small part.

According to Statistics Canada, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is around 16 per cent. However, the unemployment rate is not the most important figure here, because it includes only people who are actively participating in the labour force — that is, people who are employed or actively searching for jobs. The rate of participation in the labour force is much more telling: it goes down depending on the severity of the disability, defined according to the number and extent of a person's functional limitations. According to the same Statistics Canada report about people with disabilities and employment, the rate of participation in the labour force is 68 per cent for those with mild disabilities, and only 26 per cent for those with very severe disabilities, a fairly steep decline.

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On the surface this makes sense — the more severe the disability, the less likely it is that someone will be able to work. There are certainly some for whom working is not a reasonable or achievable goal. But there are many people with disabilities who want to work. One American study found that 80 per cent of adults with disabilities without jobs wanted one. Having as many people as possible work as much as possible is good for people with disabilities, good for society, and good for the economy.

Education is key in making those gaps smaller, according to Frank Smith, executive director of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students. Over the past few decades, Smith says, more and more people with disabilities have received higher education, which gives them a better chance of entering the labour market. "If you look at the statistics and if you look at the anecdotal experience of people with disabilities entering the labour market, it's pretty clear that with higher education…people with disabilities are more likely to be hired, retained, and on a career path," Smith says.

But education is not a cure-all. For one thing, it is not available or accessible to everyone: disability and income level can act as barriers. And there are often few opportunities for people with disabilities to take advantage of paid employment or other work experiences while in school. While in graduate school for journalism, for example, I chose not to take advantage of a program for unpaid placements during the school year, because I was afraid I’d be unable to catch up and wasn't sure whether there would be anywhere I could easily work with my wheelchair. This was a conscious choice on my part, and I believe it was the right one for me at the time; however, it did put me at a disadvantage compared to my classmates who did participate and were therefore able to add to their portfolios. And since many students with disabilities take reduced course loads, they often go to school in the summers, which further limits opportunities for paid work. This, Smith says, means that people with disabilities are likely to need more than one degree to become as qualified as a person who has only one.


Time is the factor that causes the most stress for me personally. Not only do I feel perpetually behind because it has taken me longer to build a work history, but it takes me longer to do most things and longer to find jobs worth applying for. I try to do reconnaissance when I look at job postings to determine whether the job is worth taking the time to apply for. I look companies up on Google Street View — does the building look like it will accommodate my wheelchair? If not, I don't want to waste my time and the recruiter's scheduling an interview that will not happen and that will only cause embarrassment for all concerned.

I know that’s probably the wrong approach to take. Every bit of advice I have ever been received says to apply anyway and then strategize with the employer about how I can do the job. This is sound advice, and I agree with it completely, but the question of time is still pressing. If I spend the time applying for a job I know will be almost impossible to get, I might miss out on other jobs, other projects.

Navigating this labyrinth often requires help. There are agencies and programs in Ontario geared toward helping people with disabilities find jobs — but trying to access them can be an exhausting, time-consuming process in itself. And often these services fail to address the needs of actual service users, says Alexis Buettgen, senior research consultant at Citizens with Disabilities Ontario. Buettgen has been conducting province-wide research and focus groups with people with disabilities about their participation in society, of which employment is a big part. Participants say such services focus on getting people into entry-level jobs, which may not be appropriate for everyone — especially those with higher education.

"The accountability for these service providers does not seem to be on meeting the needs and interests of their service users," says Buettgen. "Their accountability seems to be more toward their funders." Funders, says Buettgen, tend to create services that are based on outcomes or quotas — success is measured by the number of people who get jobs, not by whether they can keep them or whether there is a good fit between employer and employee. This attitude, though, is beginning to shift: the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act requires employers in Ontario to fulfill accessibility standards and other regulations (although critics of the act say the provisions for enforcement lack teeth). And recent initiatives from the government of Ontario, such as Access Talent, its new employment strategy for people with disabilities, will make accommodations easier to enforce and supports easier to find. But as things stand now, trying to find help to find a job can be as exhausting as the job search itself.

Things are slowly getting better. More and more attention is being paid to the idea that hiring people with disabilities is a net win for the economy. More and more people with disabilities are gaining access to education. But change needs to come more quickly — for the good of job seekers, and for the good of the province.

Sarah Trick is an Ottawa-based journalist who has written for The Walrus and Global News.

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