The “Unemployable Disabled” Of Ottawa

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. I would have liked to blog on several occasions, but it is a delicious modern-day irony that I was too busy being social (and talking about social media) to find the time!

I had a fantastic trip to Peterborough with 5 self-advocates (individuals with intellectual disabilities who advocate for community inclusion) where I was honoured to be the keynote speaker at the 3rd annual People First of Peterborough conference. I got such a strong response from this presentation, I only wish that there were more audiences interested in learning about how so many of our systems cruelly exclude people with intellectual disabilities (and other marginalized groups) from community life.

What I love about this conference is that although they do bring in speakers like myself (I was there to explain why LiveWorkPlay has decided to invest in supporting People First of Ottawa as a critical partner) most of the voices are self-advocates. They even ran a workshop led by two young women with intellectual disabilities who are teaching others how to do public speaking. I can’t tell you how many times I misted up!

I was of course preaching to the converted at a People First conference (which was somewhat appropriate given I was speaking from a pulpit!) but self-advocates are by far the best barometer for figuring out if one is on the right track in pursuing social change. If your message doesn’t resonate with them, then you’re either a fraud or ignorant. I’m trying hard to make sure I am neither.

What these individuals want is unsurprisingly simplistic, because it is what almost everyone wants: a decent home, a decent job, and decent friends. But for many people with intellectual disabilities, that is strike 1-2-3. They live in an institutional home (see slide 31), they are probably unemployed or toiling in a segregated workshop, and they are probably very isolated with a small social network that includes few unpaid relationships.

It was therefore distressing to return from that environment only to see mainstream Ottawa media acting as willing conduits1 for supporting the regressive viewpoint that people with disabilities are “unemployable.” The fact that this dialogue of unemployability has taken shape not because of a debate about disability issues but rather because of bitterness on the part of some agencies about funding decisions made by the United Way Ottawa doesn’t make me feel any better.

To explain this situation in a nutshell, the United Way has never funded everything to do with disability issues (this would be impossible) but after lengthy consultations they’ve refined their disability priority within the Belonging To Community stream to a focus on employment. This is similar to changes they have made in supporting immigrants (to much critical acclaim). This change in the disability focus – although a long time in coming – is still being opposed, almost exclusively by agencies that were previously receiving funding for other activities. Given that the priority is clearly a good one, that they can’t fund everything, this decision was not made on short notice, and the United Way Ottawa is not funded by taxpayers and has its own processes for deciding who and what should be funded, this should have been a non-story.

Beyond the irritation of quality media time given to a non-story, it makes me angry and sad that this opposition is being mounted around the flawed concept of “unemployability.” Were that applied to immigrants, the media would not have been so accommodating, and the public would have been outraged. It’s still open season on people with disabilities when it comes to categorizing them as lesser human beings. That slapping limiting labels on them happens so easily sends a clear signal to people with disabilities that they have not yet arrived as citizens.

People with disabilities like those I met in Peterborough and those I support through LiveWorkPlay on a daily basis – and some amazing local employers – are doing all that they can to change perceptions that they don’t belong in mainstream society (nothing is more “mainstream” than “I have a job” for those who want one). Their struggle is not represented in this dialogue, and to see them victimized in this way disgusts me. They have fought so hard for acceptance, but it’s an exhausting fight. Like the rest of us they just want to “be” and not have to fight all the time just to be part of humanity.

If the United Nations had enforcement powers, calling people with disabilities “unemployable” would actually be illegal. And so it should be. Article 27 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (part of an incredible document assembled by a worldwide coalition) which has been ratified by the Parliament of Canada explains it beautifully (this is just an excerpt, the single page Article 27 document is well worth reading in full):

Article 27 recognize the right of persons with disabilities to work, on an equal basis with others; this includes the right to the opportunity to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities.

This is not to say that employment is everything. Frankly, affordable housing is a much bigger issue, but of course unemployment is a poverty issue, and poverty and access to housing are inexorably linked. Canada is one of the only G20 nations without a national affordable housing strategy. I’d like to see United Way Ottawa take that on too, but perhaps instead of expecting them to build Rome in a day, we can support their efforts to get the unemployment rate of people with disabilities down to a number less embarrassing to Canada’s capital city, and more importantly, will get people who are marginalized by these regressive attitudes out working in the community. Seeing is believing, and discrimination against people with disabilities is mainly about being seen as incapable – and “unemployable” supports that negative stereotype to perfection.

We need to be encouraging and supporting employers to diversity their workplace environments, not giving them a message that they shouldn’t even try to include people with disabilities.

People with disabilities will know they have arrived as citizens when describing them as “unemployable” will be viewed as being just as offensive as homophobic or racist comments that are simply unacceptable in this day and age, and certainly don’t flow with such ease from media or agency CEOs.

Clearly we aren’t there yet.

1 I may not be aware of all instances where the media gave this “unemployability” tactic some play, but here is a relevant clip from CTV Ottawa and articles one and two from the Ottawa Citizen, the latter of which features the vomitous headline phrase “unemployable disabled people.”

About Keenan Wellar

Keenan is a citizen of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) and co-leader of a social change and community benefit organization,, a registered charity which helps the community welcome and include people with intellectual disabilities, autistic persons, and individuals with a dual diagnosis to live, work, and play as valued citizens. LiveWorkPlay was named Ottawa's Best Non-Profit of 2019 by the Ottawa Board of Trade and Ottawa Business Journal "Best Ottawa Business Awards " With Julie Kingstone, Keenan is co-owner of Wellstone Leadership Services, dedicated to supporting a culture of excellence for non-profit, private sector, government organizations, collaborations, and partnerships. Keenan is a founding member of the leadership group for the From Presence To Citizenship collaborative. Keenan is a regular guest (monthly) of the News 1310 Power Lunch radio show, and he writes the monthly NPQ North column for Nonprofit Quarterly. When not working and supporting various social causes, Keenan loves kayaking and wildlife photography, cheering for the Ottawa RedBlacks and Pittsburgh Steelers, and causing a disturbance on social media.
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8 Responses to The “Unemployable Disabled” Of Ottawa

  1. Kristopher Wong says:


    Great blog and congrats on your keynote. That is amazing.

    I always love reading your blog and learning what you are thinking. Please let me know if there iss anything i can do to help. πŸ™‚



    • keenanwellar says:

      Wow thanks! If there’s one thing I’ve learned from our wonderful volunteer coordinator Fran Childs, it’s that we are always better off asking what you would like to do to help, instead of us telling you πŸ™‚

      Seriously, whatever talents you would like to lend, and contact Fran. We have people helping us with everything from playing video games or working out with our members to back office assistance and research.


  2. max keeping says:

    Beautifully written; thanks for your passion and insight.


    • keenanwellar says:

      Thank you Max! You are one of those people uniquely positioned to understand this issue as you have been involved with so many causes where you know people of all ages who have refused to accept “can’t” as their fate.


  3. Christine McFee says:

    Thank you Keenan, It is well written blog. I agree. I always believe that we must focus on the ability not the disability of each individual. And Live Work Play is doing a very good job as an organization in terms of advocating and engaging the whole community about intellectual disabilities.


    • keenanwellar says:

      Thank you Christine, we are trying. I wish that our entire sector could rally around the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities so we could present a more unified voice to the community. It’s very difficult when you’ve got some people talking about “unemployable disabled” when we believe the correct perspective is that we have a community that hasn’t yet figured out how to include all citizens. But it’s starting to happen, there are some amazing employers in Ottawa who are light years ahead in their thinking – far ahead of some of the very agencies that are supposed to be leading these changes.


  4. Matthew says:

    Everything you said fits in with my life! I was diagnosed with Epilepsy at age 8 (1970) and got removed from Public Schooling for the safety of other students. There wasn’t an Epilepsy Society in all of Canada until the mid 70’s. Instead, since Epileptic Seizures take place in the Brain, I was sent to a Mental Health Unit where it was mandatory that all patients be sexually ‘fixed”. I was also declared “Unemployable” so that when I turn legal age, I’ll automatically be put on Disability Income and sent to live in a Home for the Handicapped, isolated from the rest of society. A type of Prison, but a Legal One that was our government’s idea of what to do with people like us. When I met a woman who also has Epilepsy, we got sexually involved and we got in big trouble, forced to take a non-criminal version of the sex offender program, to learn that people with disabilities are not allowed to do that. Just because Normal people can be in relationships, doesn’t mean we can! I’m now 50 years old and still single and still on Disability Income classed Unemployable, with a letter from the Government trying to make me understand why people with disabilities cannot work, saying “The Safety of Thousands is More Important than the Pleasures of Just One.”


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