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  • Writer's pictureErin Clark

International Women's Day

Suit up, #sexicon. It’s International Women’s Day.

When you were a teenager you participated in a provincial program to teach job skills to disabled teens. The course was heavy on basic social skills. It strikes you now as terribly problematic that the province had the understanding that teenagers with disabilities were segregated intensively enough that they lacked social skills, so they created a job training program that included lessons on social skills, but had no response to the way disabled students were being educated in the first place. The part that interested you was visiting potential jobs with a social worker and assessing them for interest/aptitude and accessibility. Nothing was accessible. Not in the kind of jobs teenagers take over the summer to gain experience and earn extra money. Finally you visited the children’s museum in your town and it seemed like a possibility. You could do a lot of the work there. The museum interviewed you and then applied to the government for a grant to pay your salary. The idea being that, as a disabled person, you would not being doing the full work of a not disabled employee and therefore the museum would need subsidizing.

Not a terribly great start to your first experience with employment.

The main part of your job was putting on the themed shows in each of the galleries. Pulling replicated dinosaur bones out of lucite cases and naming them for fascinated children. Turning the lights off in the space gallery and projecting constellations on a dome, telling ancient stories about the stars to a rapt audience braving the total darkness. You got to do cool science experiments and, when you were lucky, you got to do story time. You were also the best birthday party host they had. When other employees had trouble with rowdy kids, they’d track you down and beg you to come and settle the crowd. You always could. You could play the giant parachute game, you could do the magic tricks, you could cut the cake and keep the kids in line and polite. But you could not collect the partygoers from the lobby and march them up to the third floor. You could not maneuver the giant popcorn machine from the storage closet into the room or safely put the popcorn into bags for the children. You couldn’t bend down to the floor over and over again to pick toys up and put them away. You were frequently assigned the craft table in the lobby even though you could not get into the craft supply room in the staff office.

No one was subtle about their resentment of the things you couldn’t do. No one was subtle about calling you lazy. No one was reserved in their irritation. Despite the fact that it was part of your contract to be assigned a volunteer for the things you could not do, and that your salary was subsidized by the government in preparation for that.

You were 17 and didn’t know your rights. You didn’t know how to distinguish between useful feedback and discrimination. You didn’t understand how to collaborate with your employer to access reasonable accommodations in the workplace, or how to communicate your limits and maintain that you were contributing to the team. You didn’t know how to insist. Instead, you quit. You took the lesson with you that you were unemployable. That you were not valuable. That your limitations undermined anything useful you could do. You applied for and received the Ontario Disability Pension and resigned yourself to living off that forever.

You are now self-employed as an International Sex Icon. Artist, writer, dancer. Your advocacy skills and talents have matured since you were 17. You found your own way to an independent and thriving life. But your path isn't open to everyone and self-determination, fulfillment - a fair chance at success - doesn't always feel like a reasonable goal for many disabled people.

It is still legal for an employer to request permission to pay disabled workers sub minimum wages in Canada where gender parity is otherwise a national priority. Work environments still decline to hire disabled applicants so they won’t have to deal with their Duty to Accommodate. And those are just the environments that have enough accessibility to even get to an interview. The reported median income is $10,000 less for people with disabilities than people without disabilities and thats for the only 45% who are employed.

On this #IWD the progress you press for is a vision of disabled women living self-determined lives with access to the same work/life fulfillment as all women press for equal pay and the kind of representation that counteracts the idea that disabled people aren’t and can’t or won’t contribute equal value.

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