On June 2, U of T’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) Office hosted a symposium on the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on people with disabilities who belong to marginalized groups. 

The symposium sought to bring together the research of various experts from across Ontario to discuss how these inequities harm marginalized people and how to address these inequities. A panel of six experts discussed the complex relationship between accessibility, race, and class. 

Intersectionality and disability 

Jheanelle Anderson, a research assistant at U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, described the relationship between poverty and disability as “inextricably linked.” She elaborated, “having a disability might lead to poverty for individuals… due to systemic barriers [such as] reduced income, high medical expenses, etc.”

According to data collected by Statistics Canada in 2011, the employment rate of Canadians with disabilities between the ages of 25 and 64 was 49 per cent. The employment rate for Canadians without disabilities of the same age range was 79 per cent. 

By 2017, the employment rate of Canadians with disabilities had grown to 59 per cent, while the employment rate of Canadians without disabilities had grown to 80 per cent.

In 2011, 12 per cent of Canadians with disabilities disclosed an experience within the past five years of having been denied employment due to their condition. A survey conducted by the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) found that not only are there very little or no costs of providing accommodations for employees with disabilities, but that, following the provision of accommodations, employers reported improvements in the productivity of employees with disabilities, as well as in the company’s overall productivity. 

However, prevailing myths about people with disabilities shroud the benefits of their employment. Since employers often measure productivity in terms of the highest amount of output they can get with the lowest costs, and since people with disabilities require accommodations, employers may egregiously equate the additional resources required to complete work to laziness or reduced productivity. 

Nevertheless, the ability to do well on a task is not linked to productivity; performance — how well one works — is not the same as productivity. Additionally, the survey by JAN indicates that the productivity of an employee with disabilities will increase after they receive relevant accommodations.

A second myth revolves around some employers’ belief that providing accommodations is expensive. The survey conducted by JAN found that 56 per cent of the 1,029 employers questioned reported no additional costs of providing accommodations for an employee with disabilities. Only four per cent of the sampled employers reported annual costs for providing accommodations, and 39 per cent reported a one-time cost. 

Further, in 2014, Statistics Canada reported that 23 per cent of Canadians with disabilities aged 25 to 64 were living in a household earning less than half of the median Canadian income, while nine per cent of Canadians without disabilities fell within the same income level. In 2020, Statistics Canada reported that 8.5 per cent of Canadianswith disabilities live below the poverty line.

Anderson explained that this cycle has distinct effects on racialized individuals. She asserted that poverty and race are inherently tied to poor health: “It means that you’re more likely to be working in short periods, jobs without benefits, high stress, which all contribute, again, to poor health outcomes.”

She suggests that the interrelation of poverty and race “plays a significant role in… creating disadvantaged conditions and barriers for racialized [individuals with disabilities] accessing resources.” 

Effects of the pandemic 

The panel argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the preexisting inequities encountered by individuals with disabilities. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, individuals with disabilities have experienced worsened barriers to employment; the unfamiliar conditions of the pandemic, coupled with limited accessibility services, left many individuals with disabilities struggling to find employment. 

Anderson highlighted the lack of consideration people with disabilities receive in the formulation of COVID-19 safety measures. Under the Essential Services Act, it is up to the employer to decide if a service or position is essential. However, the designation must be given only to services and positions that support government services and obligations. Therefore, the decision to designate a service as essential remains largely up to whether the government deems it necessary. 

Anderson explained that a variety of services that people with disabilities required were not classified as essential by the government during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Anderson herself was unable to access her prosthetic services when the pandemic first started. 

Narrowing the discussion to people with intellectual disabilities, Ann Fudge Schormans, an associate professor at McMaster University’s School of Social Work, said: “The degree of social devaluation that gets applied to this group of people is quite tremendous, and that shows up very much in terms of the services, supports, and resources that are afforded to people.” 

Schormans remarked that the restrictive pandemic lockdowns “exacerbated isolation, poverty,  and access to services and health care” for those with disabilities. “Developmental services for people labelled with intellectual disabilities implemented really, really severe restrictive pandemic lockdowns and visitation bans that really had a notable impact on people’s lives,” continued Schormans. The lockdowns limited interactions with staff, support workers, and family members. 

Susan Mahipaul, a lecturer of disability studies at Western University, addressed the problems in the system of care for individuals with disabilities. In the case that a patient at a care home tested positive for COVID-19, they would often be left unattended for the duration of their quarantine. 

The panel emphasized that all of these systems of racial, economic, and ableist oppression feed into each other, and therefore the search for solutions requires that these systems be dismantled.