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A woman using a braille keyboard while working at her computer.

Post-pandemic economic recovery must include Canadians with sight loss

by John M. Rafferty

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, no one could have predicted how the employment landscape would shift. The pandemic has underscored existing inequalities: vulnerable groups and those living on low incomes have experienced the most job losses, reduced hours at work, and restricted access to community services and supports.

As one of many organizations providing support to Canadians with disabilities, CNIB ramped up its employment program as our talent pool of job seekers with sight loss grew by 300 per cent since March 2020. Only 31 per cent of working-age adults with sight loss are employed full time, compared to the national employment rate of 65.5 per cent. 

The un- and under-employment of Canadians with sight loss is an even greater concern in the aftermath of COVID-19, as the pandemic has significantly increased barriers to employment in a world defined by physical distancing. Simply put, Canadians with sight loss are facing an employment crisis but it can be averted with the right supports.

CNIB is calling on all political parties, and all candidates, in the upcoming election to commit to securing the development of critical employment programs for Canadians with disabilities as the economy re-opens. 

CNIB recommends the federal government enhance multi-year funding for employment programs supporting Canadians with disabilities, in the wake of an imminent post-pandemic employment crisis. According to CNIB’s 2021 Levels of Employment Study, 31 per cent of working Canadians with sight loss have had a change in employment status, including reduced hours and reduced pay, due to COVID-19.

Future federal government programs that aim to improve employment rates among Canadians with disabilities must not cause a clawback on any provincial/territorial support programs. Many Canadians with disabilities rely on part-time income to supplement their existing disability support. Any employment strategies from the federal government need to support and encourage Canadians with disabilities to enter the workforce, rather than disincentivize. 

A significant barrier to finding employment is a lack of access and the affordability of assistive devices, such as magnifiers, magnification software, screen readers, refreshable braille displays and CCTVs. To help Canadians with disabilities access the devices they need to be successful in the workplace, the Government of Canada must establish a national assistive devices program – one that is inclusive of entrepreneurs, gig workers, and students with disabilities – and not be tied to an employer. 

Without multi-year funding for employment programs that support Canadians with disabilities in the wake of an imminent post-pandemic employment crisis, the lingering effects of the pandemic may be with us for years to come in the form of higher poverty, greater reliance on unemployment programs and inequality. Let's not go there.

CNIB looks forward to ensuring that our next Government and new Members of Parliament make the needs of Canadians with sight loss a priority.

John Rafferty is CNIB's President and CEO