Employment, the minimum wage and ableism

OB-X10-1-292By Melissa Graham

I’m going to get right to the point here. An increased minimum wage is not harming disabled people. It is however doing a great job at highlighting the ableist and saneist bias that continues to exist within employment in Ontario and social services.

When Bill 148 was still being debate, there were some who used disabled people to make a shameful and disgusting argument against raising the minimum wage, because they felt that employers would not want to pay a disabled person $14 or $15 per hour. Mark Farber is one such person.

People in the disability community might remember Farber. He received a number of accolades and significant publicity for hiring people with disabilities at his business (which just happened to be a Tim Hortons franchise). He now works as a public speaker encouraging employers to hire people with disabilities. He just doesn’t think they’re worth the new minimum wage.

Today I was reading in the Toronto Star about how injured workers are getting less support from WSIB, since the rise of the minimum wage. This is true. Once a person is deemed “eligible to work” by WSIB, their supports are reduced by what that person would receive at a minimum wage job, whether or not they’ve actually found work. Finding work is difficult enough these days when you’re not injured or living with a disability. WSIB’s formula is hurting injured workers. This isn’t a new problem, but it’s one that needs to be resolved. Injured workers need our solidarity on this.

I have a full-time job that I have held for almost six years. I’m fortunate now, but it took me a long haul to find that job. As most disabled people who’ve looked for work have discovered, it may be illegal for employers to discriminate against someone with a disability, but there’s plenty of ways to avoid hiring someone with a disability.

Not so long ago I went for a job interview at a non-profit social service agency. I read the job description and felt well qualified for the job. I did well in the interview, but at the end of the interview they showed me a new description, one that had added snow shoveling, and asked me if there was anything on that list I couldn’t do. I wish that I had come up with some clever remark about converting my wheelchair into a snowplow, but instead I felt shamed. That story is not unique. Similar situations happen all the time.

We’d like to forget that until recently we still had sheltered workshops in Ontario, that there’s a whole industry around subsidized employment for disabled people, and that social assistance rates still haven’t recovered from the Mike Harris years.

Disabled people seeking employment are often blamed for their employment woes, but the reality is the job market is set against disabled people. Despite all the talk from governments about finding disabled people work, disabled people are still an often exploited and undervalued labour force, living in a system that would like continue to exploit us.

Disabled people are not the problem, and neither is the minimum wage. Disabled people have the same value as someone with the same job or skills. Disabled people are not responsible for the ableism in the job market.

Disabled people do need to start coming together, we need to start showing solidarity and stop letting ourselves be used as a wedge by those without our lived experience for their own gain.

This piece was first published on Sit Down, Fight Back

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