Motion for Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne

Honourable senators, I know that you’re anxious to listen to another Jim, another short guy, in about 20 minutes. I’m sure Minister Flaherty has listened to me and others in dealing with the response to the Speech from the Throne and particularly what hopefully will be happening in the budget this afternoon, after four o’clock, when he speaks.

There are things that sometimes can work in this Parliament when you have positive discussions with the government on many issues, and I’m responding now to the Speech from the Throne, Seizing Canada’s Moment, with this speech, which won’t be that long. Hopefully those who want to hear Minister Flaherty will.

Honourable senators, the 2013 Speech from the Throne addressed an issue that is close to my heart, the underrepresentation of people with disabilities in Canada’s labour force.

Specifically, in that Speech from the Throne, the government committed to helping people with disabilities get the job training they need and to connecting them with employers and jobs. Our country has been recognized internationally as a leader in the area of disability, particularly education for children with disabilities.

On the issue of including people with disabilities in the labour force, however, Canada has lagged somewhat. There are currently about half a million working-age adults in this country with developmental disabilities, so many people who would most certainly benefit from the opportunity to work, to gain financial independence and to develop a greater sense of self-worth.

Unfortunately, only 25 per cent of these Canadians are gainfully employed. This is a problem not only for the remaining 75 per cent. For every adult denied the chance to be a productive employee, there is an employer and a team also losing out. Any person who truly wants to work is a person who will demonstrate a strong work ethic, who will take care and pride in his or her responsibilities and who will motivate co-workers by example and inspire among them a sense of camaraderie.

In less than 20 minutes, the federal budget will be delivered, and I await the details with hope that the government will carry through financially on its clear promise to help people with disabilities join and flourish within the Canadian labour force.

The government has an opportunity to be innovative, to draw from the expertise and insights of community agencies that work every day to support and improve the lives of people with disabilities, to inspire employers to hire people with disabilities, to invest in initiatives comprised of the right mix of best practices, partnerships and the potential to positively influence how society regards people with disabilities.

Minister Flaherty has heard from this fascinating and inspirational group. Ready, Willing & Able is a new initiative of the Canadian Association for Community Living, CACL. It is so named to reflect the reality that Canadians with disabilities are ready, willing and able to be part of creating an inclusive and effective labour market.

In partnership with the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorders Alliance, the initiative is designed to increase employment for people with intellectual disabilities and people on the autism spectrum. The fact that Ready, Willing & Able represents people with intellectual and developmental disabilities speaks volumes. Traditionally, the interests of these groups are pursued separately, even when goals are shared. Clearly, this is a unique initiative.

There are many significant ways Ready, Willing & Able stands out from other initiatives supporting people with disabilities. In the words of my friend Michael Bach, Executive Vice-President of the CACL, one important difference is that it is demand-driven. It takes into account the reality that employers value the traits that this untapped labour pool can offer. This comes across clearly in last year’s report from the Panel on Labour Market Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, which was called, Rethinking DisAbility in the Private Sector.

The report includes a number of positive findings that suggest that Canadians’ perception of people with disabilities is improving. Employers understand better than ever the merits of promoting diversity within their workplaces. They are ready to think bigger. It would seem that the underrepresentation of people with disabilities in the labour force is a situation that could essentially solve itself. This is not the case, though. Not at all. Employers do not know how to reach this potential labour pool, and many community-based employment agencies that work with people with disabilities lack the skills and resources to connect with employers. What is needed is an infrastructure to bring the major players together. Bridging is critical to success.

The problem is that it is not currently funded. Ready, Willing & Able representatives connect with employers to determine their needs and then follow up with community agencies working with people with disabilities. It is somewhat like brokering. To date, Ready, Willing & Able has realized — and Minister Flaherty knows this — incredible successes. In one notable pilot effort last fall, it reached out to corporate decision makers at Costco, who followed up by engaging managers at stores in the Greater Toronto Area. Once representatives for the initiative got a sense from managers of what they wanted in prospective employees, they shared what they learned with community agencies. Those community agencies then identified job candidates from among their clients.

Ultimately, 23 people were hired to work through the busy holiday season. The employers were so pleased that they offered 20 of the temporary employees permanent jobs. Costco now plans to roll out a similar program in stores throughout Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. In the words of CALC’s Mr. Bach:

We have a productivity challenge and anticipated labour- market shortage. If we support and educate people with disabilities for jobs that exist — not as part of a social service — we can show that they can be part of the solution.

Ready, Willing & Able is seeking a three-year investment from the federal government to create an infrastructure for connecting employers to people with disabilities. Participating in setting up this infrastructure and seeing how it works will enable the government to learn some invaluable lessons and, in the future, to invest more effectively.

There are also some significant financial benefits to be considered. In a proposal to find employment for 5,100 people, Ready, Willing & Able estimates that the government would see $1.41 million each year in cost savings in social assistance payments. Add to this amount increased revenues from income tax and sales tax from a new consumer group, and the case for this initiative gets more convincing.

Honourable senators, in the new climate that we are living in here, with the new reality on this side, personally I was heartened by the government’s commitment last fall to address the underrepresentation of people with disabilities in the labour force, so I am anxious to learn how much money the government intends to spend directly towards this cause. The coming weeks and months will be interesting as the government scopes out its plan for action, and if it’s a good action plan, I will support it.

As most of you know, the interests of people living with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual and other disabilities matter to me deeply. My work on their behalf involves many enriching experiences. I connect with wonderful people. I listen to their stories and I witness their accomplishments. Ready, Willing & Able sounds like a wonderful initiative for this country, to be true partners in our economy, community and society.

Contact with working-age people with disabilities and their families has afforded me many advantages, among them an understanding of what employment would mean to them and to Canada: a brighter future and pride.

As for those who believe in inclusiveness and the importance of social diversity, I am sure we would respond to decisive steps by the government to carry through on its commitments to people with disabilities in much the same way, with optimism for our society and with pride in seeing our values reflected in government-sponsored activities to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities.