World Health Organization and CACL lend support to Employment First approach!

Following up on my previous blog about the Unemployable Disabled I’ve thus far been unsuccessful with either CBC Ottawa or the Ottawa Citizen in my efforts to encourage them to give voice to a 21st century understanding of people with disabilities and their right to full citizenship, which includes employment.

For reasons that remain a mystery to me, in both cases they continue to source their information about this issue almost exclusively with staff members of agencies that are upset about either losing or not receiving funds from United Way Ottawa. That these individuals are advocating for their respective agencies makes sense (although I find some of their tactics regrettable). What doesn’t make sense is that professional journalists with a responsibility to bring objectivity to this discussion continue to present a decidedly unbalanced viewpoint.

Without getting into inter-agency squabbles, the issue boils down as follows:

1) Is fighting to reduce unemployment for people with disabilities a worthy focus?

2) Is there a population of “unemployable disabled” that are being abandoned by a focus on employment?

I’ve already covered this to some extent and brought the issues to the attention of relevant editors, producers, and journalists, but what do I know? I’m just a local boy who has dedicated most of his adult life to these issues as co-founder and co-leader of LiveWorkPlay, and volunteers in support of self-advocates as a Provincial Advisor to People First of Ontario, one of the largest organizations by and for people with intellectual disabilities in Canada. What do they know? So listen instead to what the World Health Organization has to say: they’ve just published the World Report On Disability which is easily the most signficant work on disability issues – ever.

Here’s what some knowledgeable folks have to say about it:

“Disability is part of the human condition,” says WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan. “Almost every one of us will be permanently or temporarily disabled at some point in life. We must do more to break the barriers which segregate people with disabilities, in many cases forcing them to the margins of society.”

“Addressing the health, education, employment, and other development needs of people living with disabilities is fundamental to achieving the Millennium Development Goals,” says Robert B. Zoellick, President of The World Bank Group. “We need to help people with disabilities to gain equitable access to opportunities to participate and contribute to their communities. They have much to offer if given a fair chance to do so.”

Welcoming the report, renowned theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking said, “We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation for people with disabilities, and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock their vast potential. It is my hope this century will mark a turning point for inclusion of people with disabilities in the lives of their societies.”

Lower rates of labour market participation are one of the important pathways through which disability leads to poverty.

Article 27 the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) “recognizes the right of persons with disabilities to work, on an equal basis with others; this includes 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.”

Furthermore, the CRPD prohibits all forms of employment discrimination,
promotes access to vocational training, promotes opportunities for self-employment, and calls for reasonable accommodation in the workplace, among other provisions.

A number of factors impact labour market outcomes for person with disabilities. This includes productivity differentials, labour market imperfections related discrimination and prejudice, and disincentives created by disability benefit systems.

Almost all jobs can be performed productively by someone with a disability, and given the right environment, most peopel with disabilities can be productive. But working age persons with disabilities experience significantly lower employment rates and much higher rates of unemployment than persons with disabilities.

This is due to many factors, including lack of access to education and vocational rehabilitation and training, lack of access to financial resources, disencentives created by disability benefits, the inaccessibility of the workplace, and employers’ perceptions of disability and people with disabilities.

I return now to our two key questions, first up:

Is fighting to reduce unemployment for people with disabilities a worthy focus?

Given the exhaustive (and exhaustively referenced) chapter of this report dedicated to employment and disabilities as a major worldwide problem, I am hopeful that we can move on from questioning its suitability as a focus.

One could of course argue that the report points out many other critical issues – such as health and education. This is where I must defer to the professionals and volunteers at the United Way Ottawa who decided on employment as a focus – but it’s not that hard to understand their choice. As a donor-driven funding agency (among other things of course) United Way Ottawa needs to set achievable goals. I think it’s obvious their ability to influence the health care system or the school system would be limited, especially in terms of yielding measurable objectives that they could explain to their donors.

So why employment? This too I believe is obvious. About 50% of people with disabilities in Ottawa who want to work are not able to work. The figures are even worse for the most marginalized members of the disability demographic – for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, the unemployment rate jumps to 75%.

Also coming out today (and after my initial publishing of this blog) was the Canadian Association for Community Living (CACL) report Achieving social and economic inclusion: from segregation to ’employment first’ which is of course targeted specifically to Canada as well as the disability demographic subset of “people with intellectual disabilities.” This is very helpful to the current debate as it is a population that is just at the beginning stages of emerging from labels like “unemployable.” Here are some clippings from the report that stuck with me on first reading:

Working age adults with intellectual disabilities experience one of the lowest rates of employment at just over 25%. This is due to a number of factors related to inadequate access to education, postsecondary education and training, and low expectations by family members, educators, employers and the community at large for the employment potential of this group.

A clear Employment First program funding framework that includes investments into a coherent community-based delivery system, local community capacity building, demonstration initiatives, training and technical support and employer capacity.

Notice how both the WHO and CACL reports come back to the question of expectations? If we expect that people with disabilities are unemployable, we’ll build a community that lowers itself to that expectation. Critical to changing how our community welcomes people with disabilities to local workplaces is to stop making an ass out of u and me. We don’t have the right to tell people with disabilities that they can’t work, and we have a moral and legal responsibilities to make employment happen.

With each and every individual who gets a job, their life changes, the workplace where they get hired changes, and the community where they live changes. Furthermore, there is an indisputable link between unemployment and poverty, and there are indisputable links between poverty and a plethora of social ills. When someone gets a job it doesn’t make all of their challenges disappear, but it has a significant – and measurable – impact.

Is there a population of “unemployable disabled” that are being abandoned by a focus on employment?

Let’s move on to the more complex issue of “are we leaving people behind” with a focus on employment. It’s a bit of a loaded question. If I was unemployed, it would certainly be at the top of my list of problems to be addressed, but it wouldn’t be the only thing that matters. And that’s really the point – there are endless issues related to helping people with disabilities enjoy life as welcomed and included members of the Ottawa community.

The United Way Ottawa is not a “money tree” that can do it all. They get their money from donors who want to understand how they are making a difference. So instead of scattering their funds, they’ve decided to focus on an issue that is incredibly important and where they believe they can change people’s lives and explain the results.

As the World Health Organization report points out, one of the key barriers to employment for people with disabilities is attitudinal. The CRPD (which Canada ratified last year) explicitly forbids employment discrimination. In my view, anyone who talks about people with disabilities as “unemployable” is in violation of the CRPD and while currently there is no legal recourse against such discrimination, there is a clear moral obligation to cease and desist from promoting this harmful thinking.

The outdated medical model of human services would have us believe that if a person with a disability can’t get a job, the disability (and the individual) is the problem. In the 21st century we understand that disability is a part of humanity, and that the problem is that as a society we are failing that person in that we haven’t yet found a way to welcome them into the labour force. This is not to say that the person has no work to do on their own – but rather that they have a right to the opportunity and to reasonable accommodations to make it happen.

And that is what the United Way Ottawa is trying to do.

I support that.

And I am baffled that CBC Ottawa and the Ottawa Citizen in particular have decided to give voice (repeatedly) to those who are focused on funding squabbles instead of the issues.

In the event that you might consider my views the mere ranting of a utopian idealist, through my role at LiveWorkPlay I am “on the street” with this issue, working with (at present) 14 local employers creating and maintaining successful employment for people with intellectual disabilities – many of whom were at one time or another stamped with an “unemployable” label. The only way to get rid of that stigma is to get a job. Congratulations to them and to their employers for not letting other people decide what is possible!


LiveWorkPlay has received an annual grant of $42,500 from United Way Ottawa so we can do more. This will include (new) working with youth with intellectual disabilities (and schools) so we can help them better transition from high school into the workforce.

If you are tempted to think that my opinion on this issue has been “bought off” you’ll have to think again. I spoke out publicly in support of the changes at United Way Ottawa almost a year ago – long before we found out we’d be receiving funding in May of 2011. We didn’t plan on getting any funding, and we didn’t expect to get any funding. United Way Ottawa always gets a hundred or more applications than they can afford to fund so any well-managed organization learns not to treat grant opportunities as a guarantee.

We are happy to have the $42,500 because we will be able to help more people get jobs. But it won’t do a thing for our bottom line. It won’t even cover us for the salary and expenses associated with hiring the full-time staff member that will do this work.

I’m afraid naysayers will need to look elsewhere to challenge my motivation. I want people with disabilities who want to work to have a decent chance at getting a job. Simple as that.

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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6 Responses to World Health Organization and CACL lend support to Employment First approach!

  1. Bob says:

    I have been disgusted by all of this Keenan. I am a person with a disability I had to fight all my life to get in the door and now I have a full time job. Thank you.


    • keenanwellar says:

      The good news Bob is that I believe the average person understands this – and that includes employers – but we need to make sure they get encouraging messages about employing people with disabilities, not put up horrible headlines about the “unemployable disabled.” Attitude is critical.


  2. Keep going Keenan. We preach that we should reduce, reuse, and recycle our resources to save our environment, but we waste our most valuable commodity – our human resources. It’s time to stop questioning whether people with disabilities can be employed and start asking how we can ensure that people with disabilities have the resources, knowledge, & opportunities that the rest of us enjoy.


  3. Chris Brown says:

    I thought this point was made in 20th Century!


    • Alas, a huge percentage of taxpayer resources allocated to supports and services intended for people with intellectual disabilities continue to create and maintain segregated environments. In many cases those delivering these services will claim to support “inclusion” but in fact are the machinery that is keeping people seperate from the rest of the community in sheltered workshops, day programs, and staff-directed housing.


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