Hi, as you know I was asked to submit another post for Canada.com. Many of you suggested the issue of employment and that brought back very strong memories for me. So, here's what I submitted. And with this a big thank you to Vita Community Living Services, my employer, for having an accessible workplace and more importantly and open mind! I'll let you know if and when they publish this:
Sitting in my hospital bed watching the wheelchair being rolled in, I knew I had many adjustments coming. I stood, on legs refusing to find balance, and swung round to sit down, for the first time, in a chair with wheels. It took some practice but, surprisingly, it was easier to manoeuvre than I first thought. I never, even for a second, felt 'confined to the wheelchair' or, worse, 'wheelchair bound'. In fact I felt freed. Freed of the bed I'd lain on for days. Freed from the room I had not left since entering. The wheelchair offered me nothing more and nothing less than freedom.
I would find that it also gave me access to a world of blatant discrimination, to a series of interactions spoken in patronizing tones, to invisibility and presumed incompetence. But that was yet to come. My chief worry that day was my future. I could imagine a life in a wheelchair, OK, it would be more difficult to get around. But would life welcome me in a wheelchair? What about my work? What about my career? What about my income?
Facing mammoth life changes should not be accompanied by a sudden realization that my citizenship and my full participation in the economic life of my country is suddenly in question. It was with great relief that I realized that my employer had long before crafted an accessible workplace. All that means is that there is an elevator, an accessible toilet, a flat entrance and doors wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through. I slumped back in relief at the realization that, though my mode of getting about had changed, my destinations had not.
As I ride to work on accessible transit in Toronto, I meet others with disabilities, fully employed and fully participating. Vital people with much to offer. Lawyers and accountants, consultants and teachers, programmers and fundraisers. Many are wired to the max, texting, phoning, reviewing reports on slick gadgets as they travel. These people defy the stereotype of those with disabilities. In fact, work is probably the most powerful political statement that someone with a disability makes. Yet it is a statement often unheard.
In Canada the rate of unemployment of men with disabilities is two and a half times that of non-disabled men, women with disabilities are one and a half times less employed. Further Canada ranks a dismal eighth in the world for the economic inclusion of people with disabilities. The Conference Board of Canada recognizes this saying that people with disabilities are an 'untapped reservoir of talent'. I didn't realize that day, my first day in a wheelchair, that I was simply lucky. Lucky because I have a responsible employer.
I admit to my sheer bloody surprise when I first got on the WheelTrans bus to ride to work in the morning. There on the bus with me were two others, working professionals, getting about their day, preparing for work. Over the four years of riding the bus, I've seen something that few ever see.
Talent and disability in equal portions.
I want to know what the federal parties will do to increase the opportunities for people with disabilities to fully participate in the world of work. I want to know how that 'untapped' resource will be made to work - for self and for Canada.