Yesterday, we celebrated Equal Pay Day, which recognizes the gendered pay gap that persists even in 2017. Canadian women generally make about 87 cents to every Canadian man’s dollar, but the gap is wider in other parts of the world. Depending upon location, career field, age, race, and other complex factors, women still make about 20% less than men overall. This pay gap feeds systemic inequality, especially when women are paid less than men for the exact same work, and takes a toll on the health of any economy.
Today, though, we’d like to place the spotlight on a different but no less meaningful wage gap that, even on Equal Pay Day, few people seemed to be discussing. People with disabilities, who form one of the largest minority groups, face a pay gap even wider than the one affecting women. Disabled Canadians make about 25% less than their nondisabled counterparts. Elsewhere, they make as little as 37% less than nondisabled workers. Since people with disabilities already deal with other employment-related barriers, such as a high unemployment rate and fewer opportunities, the pay gap is just one more roadblock to their success.
Part of the reason this pay gap exists is society’s belief that people with disabilities are automatically worth less and are less productive at work. Regardless of education level, prior experience, and personal skills, people with disabilities still find themselves proving and reasserting their competence at every career stage. Indeed, higher educational attainment doesn’t narrow the pay gap. If anything, it widens it. People with disabilities who have a master’s degree or higher make about $20,000 less than nondisabled peers annually, even when working in exactly the same positions. No matter how well-educated a person with a disability becomes, they are at risk of being deemed less worthy of a salary commensurate with their educational achievements.
The pay gap persists at all levels, however, especially in places where subminimum wages are legal. The United States has come under fire many times for an antiquated law that permits employers to pay disabled workers below the minimum wage if they are perceived to be less productive than someone without a disability. These wages can be so staggeringly low that the worker is making less than a dollar per hour. This practice is usually found in sheltered, segregated workshops, where the labour of workers with disabilities is treated as inferior and paid for with correspondingly low wages.
Unfortunately, such laws and practices are not unique to the United States. Canada has sheltered workshops of its own, which were originally intended to give disabled workers job training but eventually led to decades of underpaid, undervalued labour. Provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba all have old laws on the books that allow employers to pay employees less if their “physical or mental deficiencies” are likely to disrupt productivity. These laws are rarely invoked, but one time is really too many.
Adding to the issue is that people with disabilities tend to work fewer hours annually, mirroring the plight of women, who also tend to work fewer hours per year and consequently make less money. Men with disabilities only work about 750 hours annually, while men without disabilities work about 1,280. Women with disabilities work about 556 hours annually, while women without disabilities work about 993 hours per year. Further, people with disabilities are overrepresented in lower-paying jobs, just as women are.
The two situations reflect each other so perfectly that it is a wonder more people are not speaking out about this glaring example of inequality. There is abundant research on the gendered pay gap, but far less study devoted to examining the disability pay gap. Why? Why is 20% of the world’s population being left out of the important conversation that Equal Pay Day sparks each year?
At DECSA, we work hard to uphold the dignity and success of people with disabilities. We work with them every day, and know them to be competent, educated, skilled individuals who are ready, willing, and able to work. They make up a portion of our staff and contribute just as meaningfully as our nondisabled employees. We know that the single greatest barrier between them and gainful employment is society’s attitude, so we work to change that attitude wherever we can. Please join us in acknowledging inequality, disparity, and discrimination. Help us ensure that this conversation extends beyond us and into a world that so often misunderstands and undervalues workers with disabilities. In Canada, we all have the right to work. Let’s come together to protect that right.