Color & Control:

Lower quality jobs for people with disabilities 

A new study by IWH underscores needs to examine quality of employment to address market inequities. 

A new study by IWH underscores needs to examine quality of employment to address market inequities. 

We’ve known for a long time about the large and stubborn inequities that people with disabilities face in the labour market. According to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, only 59 per cent of working-age people with disabilities are gainfully employed. This is compared to 80 per cent of their counterparts without disabilities.  

Research to date on the labour market inclusion of people with disabilities has focused mainly on employment rates—a common marker of labour force inclusion. We know much less about the quality of work that people with disabilities obtain when they move into the labour force. Yet, labour market inequities between people with and without disabilities may extend well beyond employment rates. 

After all, it is one thing to have a job, and another matter entirely to have a good quality job. Inequities cut across everything we know that matters about job quality—from the contractual terms to everyday workplace experiences. 

In a newly published study, our team at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) found that people with disabilities are not only less likely to be employed. When they do find employment, they are also more likely to find themselves in lower quality jobs.

Our study, published and freely available in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, found that, compared to people with no disabilities, people with disabilities are twice as likely to be in precarious employment—i.e., in jobs that offer little security and few, if any, of the rewards that we expect from employment. Even worse, for people living with both a physical and a mental or cognitive health condition, the likelihood of being in a precarious job is four times more. 

Findings were based on a survey of 2,800 workers across Canada—a third of whom had a physical or mental/cognitive disability. Results showed that people with disabilities were significantly more likely to do temporary, part-time or gig work. They were more likely to say they worried about losing their job or that their income did not cover basic expenses. 

We asked about wage theft (were people sometimes not paid in full?), job lock (did people feel trapped in jobs?), and skill mismatch (feeling their job made poor use of their skills?). We found all three were more common among workers with disabilities. 

Results point to the widespread inequities in job quality that people with disabilities experience in the labour market. Simply put, not all jobs are created equal, and people with disabilities are more likely to land lower quality employment with less favourable working conditions. This goes to show that participating in the workforce does not in and of itself guarantee inclusion—at least not in the form of a good job. 

Additionally, findings suggest there is still a long way to go towards employment equity for persons with disabilities. This has important implications for both workplace practice and government policy. Organizations can take steps to better understand and support the needs of employees who are working with a disability. Social policy and employment legislation that improve job quality and reduce the precariousness of work would also go a long way in closing labour market inequities. 

Finally, to properly monitor and evaluate our progress towards the goal of employment equity, we need to make sure to gather the right kind of data. In Canada, national surveys designed to measure employment and working conditions, such as the Labour Force Survey, do not collect direct information on disability status. Nor do they ask about job quality beyond basic markers such as hours worked and dollars earned. As a result, we lack a comprehensive portrait of the job quality of Canadians who are living and working with disabilities—including information about shift work, schedule types, training opportunities and pensions and benefits. Filling this gap will bring us a step closer to understanding where labour market inequities exist and how best to address them. 

Ultimately, the clearest message is that we need to go beyond simply encouraging the work participation of persons with disabilities and focus greater attention on enhancing the quality of jobs available to them.  

Faraz Vahid Shahidi is an associate scientist at the Institute for Work & Health. Watch the webinar:

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