Making disability work in Whitehorse

Jon Breen has faced discrimination all his life. "People tend to have stereotypes," said the Yukon disability employment services manager. "Unless you're involved professionally, or have lived with a disability, or have a family member who does, you don't really understand disability. Why would you?"

Jon Breen has faced discrimination all his life.

“People tend to have stereotypes,” said the Yukon disability employment services manager.

“Unless you’re involved professionally, or have lived with a disability, or have a family member who does, you don’t really understand disability. Why would you?”

Breen’s department helps people with disabilities find employment in the government.

And the biggest hurdle people with disabilities face is not their physical limitations, it’s the limitations people project on to them, he said.

In May, the territorial government, in partnership with the Yukon Council on Disability and the Workers’ Compensation, Health and Safety Board, is hosting a conference to help flag this issue.

With over 300 delegates and 30 speakers from around the world set to attend the three-day, Six Steps to Success Conference, organizers are hopeful that it will have a big impact on how people view disability in the Yukon.

“The timing of this is perfect,” said conference co-ordinator George Green. “We have a labour crunch right now. Add that to the problems that people with disabilities have finding work, and those two problems make a solution.”

With our aging population, there has been a significant increase in the number of people with acquired disabilities, said Breen.

“Often people in that situation don’t consider themselves people with disabilities, he said. “Although they may have failing vision, failing hearing, all kinds of things, they don’t see themselves as a person within that conceptual label.

“They just see it as something you have to deal with.”

This is helping to normalize the issue, he said.

There has been a significant change in the attitude of employers over the decades, said Breen, who is disabled because of a childhood case of polio.

“If you look at employment levels 40 years ago to now, it’s quite different,” he said. “When I was a kid I was refused jobs based on nothing other than the fact that I showed up with my crutches.

“You don’t run into that a lot anymore.”

Today, roughly ten per cent of government employees identify as disabled.

“For a small community like this we’ve got very good services,” said Breen. “But we can always do better.”

Now, there are much more sophisticated equipment and services available for people, but entrenched myths and stereotypes still persist, he said.

On Tuesday, some of the equipment and services were on display during a Disability Awareness Expo at the Westmark.

“We’re hoping to kind of bust some of those myths out there around what it means to have an employee with a disability,” said Yukon Council on Disability executive director Lisa Rawlings Bird, who hosted the Expo.

“Lots of times we think that to accommodate someone it’s going to be this horrendously expensive thing,” said Rawlings Bird. “But most accommodations cost nothing or are very inexpensive.”

While Breen’s department works on getting people employed by government, the council on disability works with private sector employers.

“People have a right to work, I think,” said Rawlings Bird. “People want to work, they sometimes just need a bit of help to do that.”

The council is working on developing a disability and employment strategy for the Yukon, and the conference in May is a first step.

There has been a tremendous response from organized labour and government but it has been more difficult to generate interest in the private sector, said Green.

“There is value in this for an employer, for their bottom line,” said Green. “It’s more than being a good corporate citizen, it makes actual ‘cents’ for them to do this.

“If we can market it that way, I think they’ll respond.”

It hasn’t been hard to find speakers who want to take part in the conference.

But many of them are disabled, and finding accessible accommodation has been a challenge, said Green.

The organizers have booked every accessible hotel room in the city, and are using some of the rooms at Yukon College, but that’s still not enough.

“Of all the challenges that a co-ordinator faces with logistics and such, all that hasn’t been as difficult as finding hotel rooms that can accommodate the speakers,” said Green.

Contact Josh Kerr at joshk@yukon-news.com