Saturday, May 28, 2011

Discrimination: theory and practice

There is a huge difference between countries when it comes to discrimination laws. Some have very "progressive" laws and some have very "outdated" laws. What is always interesting to me is that regardless of how "progressive" or "outdated" a country's laws are, there are some things that remain the same in many places. When it comes to discrimination against people with disabilities, it is made even more painfully obvious.

Currently, I am in search of a steady job. This is no easy task in this economy and particularly in British Columbia (thanks, Gordon Campbell!). While theoretically employers are not legally allowed to discriminate in their hiring practices, there are so many ways in which they sneak around legal requirements and sometimes they are not aware of the challenges that some people face.

Right now, I've been searching for almost anything that I could get my hands on. Originally I thought that a clerical position in an office would be okay since I am fine with computers and communication. However, I am often surprised at how many clerical positions that mostly involve typing, preparing documents and answering phones require "the ability to lift 20 kgs or more." 20 kilograms is just short of 50 pounds. 50 pounds! That is the weight limit of a piece of luggage on an international flight.

I have no idea why a clerical position would require you to lift that much, but one possible reason for posting that is to basically say, "You must be able-bodied to apply." It is clearly discrimination but skirts around the law by listing it as an essential requirement of the job. It's maddening. Other ads have variations of that lifting requirement (usually 10kg or 15kg) but the message is clear.

After outright discrimination, there is widespread ignorance as well. Someone I know from wheelchair sports once applied for a job and got an interview. She is an incomplete quadriplegic, which means that her arm and hand function is impaired by her spinal cord injury. In particular, she has little ability to grip or use her hands.

One day, she applied for a job that she was otherwise qualified to do. During the interview, the employer asked her about her typing speed. She reminded them that she is a quadriplegic and they responded by, "Take a guess." Ignorance is the more likely reason for this but it is also cruel considering her circumstances.

Another instance was when someone I know landed a job at a restaurant. He knew I was looking for a job and suggested that I apply as a waiter there. I reminded him that I was in a wheelchair and that job wouldn't be suitable. He then suggested that I be a bus boy. He didn't even realize that he kept suggesting job positions that would simply not be the best thing for a wheelchair user. He didn't realize the logistical and practical problems one would face in such a job without the ability to walk or stand.

In Canada we would like to think of ourselves as progressive and inclusive. In my view, that is sometimes a problem because we pat ourselves on the back for a job well done while ignoring the things that still have to be done. It's the same problem in the US -- we can remove the physical barriers for people with disabilities and change laws, but we get so self-satisfied that our social attitudes don't change with the laws properly. Canada's attitudes towards those with disabilities are sometimes not too different from countries that have "outdated" disability laws.

This is not to say that Canada has not made progress. We have made huge progress in recent decades. But we should stop feeling so self-satisfied about what we have accomplished and continue to strive towards not only physical and legal inclusion but social inclusion as well.