People with disabilities have traditionally been excluded from decision-making, holding roles of importance, exercising personal autonomy and obtaining gainful employment. Although the view prescribed to people with disabilities has shifted over the years, there persists an underlying theme in which the overarching narrative is one of cultural mistrust. The cultural concepts and tools that we absorb and use as a population guide our perception of others, and in the case of a society built upon financial exchanges and labour, there are ideologies that are entrenched about what should comprise an ideal workforce.
Whenever a resume from an otherwise qualified individual gets overlooked because of a preconceived notion about disability, work ethic or fear of liability, it is the limiting effect of presumptions that guide that decision. The impact on the workforce is extensive because an ideological environment that perpetuates narrow ideas about work can also create outmoded income strategies like the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP)[i] as a secondary result.
There are mechanisms at play that are shifting these views, although there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of reframing disability in a way that promotes its inclusion in all aspects of life. It is difficult to ensure that businesses will consistently train their staff regarding accessibility so that an understanding of the importance of accessibility throughout the business’ framework is maintained. It is difficult to ensure that an employer will not routinely overlook resumes and applications submitted by people with disabilities based on a preconceived notion. And, it continues to be hard to make room for an ideological shift in which people with disabilities are fully valued members of society and its workforce.
Accessibility measures can bridge a gap between two points, but when those points still represent exclusionary practices there needs to be progress towards more substantive conversation. In terms of this discussion, accessibility is probably best interpreted as one of the mechanisms that mediate between inaccessible infrastructure and disability. Indeed, we have seen a shift in which conversations and actions regarding accessibility have become common and when people talk about accessibility they are more likely to talk about its wholesale implementation rather than just focusing on ramps.
The more that discussions of disability issues focus on mechanisms aimed at equality as an end game, the aspect of cultural mistrust will be a constantly receding pocket of ideology. The more that people break apart their understanding of what disability means as it interacts with society, the more people will move away from automatically conceiving of wheelchairs and canes, or the loaded images wherein a well-meaning assistant stands over an individual with an intellectual disability.
To create an accessible workforce means breaking apart long held and well-worn models that we have used to explain the identities of everybody, not only people with disabilities. To use an old adage from the prohibition era, you cannot legislate morality, but you can grow understanding and the premise for equality by planting seeds in the correct places.
[i]Ontario Disability Support Program. http://www.mcss.gov.on.ca/en/mcss/programs/social/odsp/income_support/index.aspx