Ever since she was eight, Layla Thérèse knew she wanted to be a teacher. Though she grew up fully aware she’d face barriers living with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, even she wasn’t ready for just how hard pursuing such a career would be.
At 29, Thérèse, a Toronto resident, has earned an honours bachelor of arts in English and philosophy from Carleton University in Ottawa, a bachelor of education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and additional qualifications in special education, adaptive technology and English as a second language — all certifications any school board will tell you are highly sought after in prospective teachers.
Yet, after two years of applications without a call from the Toronto District School Board, Peel District School Board, Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and various Toronto-area private schools, Thérèse is one of many Canadians with disabilities who are highly educated, but unemployed. A study from the University of Guelph shows that though Canadian universities report an increase in the number of graduates who identify as people with disabilities, unemployment rates for post-secondary graduates with disabilities is twice that of those without. Graduates with disabilities who do find work make roughly $4,000 to $6,000 less in annual salaries. Statistics Canada has also found that people with disabilities are more likely to leave the workforce early, and 17.4 per cent of those with disabilities say they faced some sort of discrimination in their job search.
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“I've lost count of the number of [places] I’ve sent my resume to,” Thérèse says. “In the first two to three weeks, I got upwards of a dozen callbacks. In my cover letters I clearly state that I have a disability, that I use a wheelchair, and I would ask, ‘Are you wheelchair accessible?’ Nine times out of 10 the answer was, ‘We had no idea you needed that. No, we’re not. We’re sorry. Best of luck in your search.’”
Brad Seward, a doctoral candidate at the University of Guelph, co-authored the national survey on graduates with disabilities, which studied 31,000 students across Canada, 1,600 of whom said they had a learning disability, emotional or behavioural disabilities or a physical disability. They answered questions two years after graduation and the outcomes “were staggering,” Seward told Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer. “What we found was that graduates with disabilities were much less represented in full time jobs and much more represented in part-time jobs and unemployment.”
For Thérèse, inaccessible locations were only the beginning. Last fall, she went back to school at a downtown Toronto college to gain more credentials in teaching English as a second language, but says she was so inadequately accommodated and openly discriminated against that she dropped out of the program without finishing.
Since Thérèse left the program, career advisers have told her that her best option might be to go into business for herself. This is what consultant Andrew Gurza did after being unsatisfied with the typical employment assistance programs offered to people with disabilities. With a bachelor of arts in law and a master’s degree in legal studies from Carleton, Gurza had hoped to do some kind of work around disability awareness, but the career consultant he spoke to dismissed his dream as a hobby. Even when family friends put him in touch with potential mentors for advice, they recommended he pursue a more menial job in what Gurza thinks was an effort to be more practical and realistic.
“Everyone wanted to tell me my passion wasn’t real and the only work that I thought I would get using these employment services was customer service or other entry-level jobs,” Gurza says.
Seward says the income gap for graduates with disabilities is important “because theories of cumulative advantage would argue that these inequalities can become entrenched over time, which exacerbates those differences. [Our study] was only two years out of graduation. Once you look at a life course perspective it can get harder.”
For five years Gurza worked in customer service at a Toronto-based communications firm, but issues with attendant care, WheelTrans transportation to his job, catheterization and his leg bag periodically bursting meant he made only sporadic appearances. The company made an effort to move his shifts around, and two years into the job, there was an opportunity to work from home. But when Gurza asked to be trained for the position, he was told the training would be too intense for him. He asked about the position periodically each year, but not wanting to make waves, he eventually stopped.
Since then, Gurza has launched a relatively successful career as a disability consultant, writer and podcaster. But, like Thérèse, he still relies on income from the Ontario Disability Support Program, which claws back 50 per cent of a participant’s earnings after the first $250, making it very difficult to get ahead.
“If you’re looking for a career, don’t use the employment services for people with disabilities,” Gurza says. “Instead, I recommend new grads with disabilities use their lived experience as a person with a disability to tap into that underserved market and create a career for themselves.”
Aaron Broverman is a Toronto-based freelance journalist.