Alberni university zeroes in on disability and poverty

BY MIKE YOUDS

SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

The road to poverty can be short and harsh for disabled workers whether they’ve acquired a disability on the job or otherwise.

It’s a tragedy of epic proportions: Disabled people make up 23 percent of the total Canadian population in poverty. The telltale statistic explains why so-called “return to work” legislation — mandating assistance for those who want to get back to work early and safely — is considered a readily available means of cutting poverty.

Return-to-work laws, expected at both federal and provincial levels in coming months, represent a “biggest bang for the buck” in efforts to bring down rising levels of poverty across the country, said Wolfgang Zimmerman, president of Pacific Coast University (PCU-WHS) for Workplace Health Sciences in Port Alberni.

“The No.1 priority that came out of consultations for Canada’s first Accessibility Act is employment,” he said. “If you don’t have a job, you don’t have income, you live in poverty, you live with impairment and chronic pain.”

The poverty factor hits particularly close to home in Port Alberni, where the number of people who rely on social assistance is more than twice that of neighbouring communities. Unemployment in the valley hovers somewhere around 10 percent. The poverty rate here is 18.5 percent, 26 percent higher than the national average, and that’s in a province with the highest rate of poverty in the country.

Advocates such as Zimmerman have been pressing for years for more effective accessibility legislation, including return-to-work obligations. Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia employers are required to work with disabled workers to accommodate an early and safe return to work after they have developed a disability, either on the job or off the job. Legislation has long been in place in Australia, the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Federal measures along these lines in the form of accessibility legislation has been promised by the Trudeau government after consultations over the last two years. In B.C., similar legislation is expected as part of the NDP government’s poverty reduction strategy.

Almost 85 percent of all disabled individuals acquire their impairments during their working lives, further evidence that better supports for getting them back to work would be an effective means of countering poverty, Zimmerman said.

“That’s why we’re saying, this is not rocket science,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not all that difficult when we look at so many organizations that have implemented good return to work programs.”

As a young worker in his first days on the job, the university administrator suffered a life-altering disability in a logging accident. He retrained as an accountant while working to reduce industrial accidents in the province through improved safety awareness, advocacy that earned him the Order of B.C. and led to a new career at the forefront of disability and the science of workplace health. Progressive disability policy is part of the mandate at PCU, founded in 2007 as a unique institution in the province.

Zimmerman knows all too well the nightmarish scenario that can play out time and again as a result of acquired disabilities. Lives tumble out of control in a series of cascading tragedies as disabled individuals lose their jobs, incomes, homes and families. Attempts to manage chronic pain can lead to addiction, bringing with it risks and challenges of another order.

“The suicide rate for people with disabilities is 40 times the national average,” Zimmerman said. “It becomes an inescapable trap.

“A significant amount of anecdotal evidence from people coming to see us who have essentially run out of options, where they don’t have a return to work program and they have acquired an impairment,” he added. “It’s never simple; it’s always traumatic for the individual, of course.”

Without over-arching legislation, return-to-work policies in B.C. vary from employer to employer. Some have adopted a supportive approach to disabilities while others simply close the door. Some workers who encounter a disability are fired outright. Society as a whole benefits by keeping people employed, Zimmerman contends.

“Addressing poverty requires a multi-faceted approach, whether it’s things like raising the minimum wage or guaranteed income. Any one of those initiatives is important, but there is overwhelming evidence that we can have a huge impact for individuals with disabilities if we have good return to work programs in place.”

Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns agrees with Zimmerman yet remains uncertain of the Liberal government’s pledge to follow through with legislation. Johns said the government has made a commitment to live up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, “but we haven’t seen the action to honour that commitment.”

There are 1.2 million Canadians who have been injured in the workplace, he noted.

“It’s a key with which we can unlock that potential using right-to-work strategies that can be implemented … We want to see the Liberals come up with a blueprint that sets clear targets,” Johns said. “They don’t have an action plan at this point.”

He points out that disabled individuals have settled in Port Alberni because of lower housing costs. Escalating housing costs are changing the equation of affordability, though.

“This government needs to adopt a sense of urgency or we’re going to have people on the street, or even worse,” the MP said, stressing the importance of the issue in Alberni. “The numbers are extremely high compared to the rest of the province.”

B.C.’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, initially promised for this spring, was recently delayed until fall. A spokeswoman for Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson said it’s too early to elaborate on specific details of the strategy.

MLA Scott Fraser said the province’s report on poverty reduction consultations will be made public this spring. He said it’s too soon to know whether return-to-work legislation will be part of the initial program to address B.C.’s glaring poverty issues.

“We have some of the highest poverty rates in Canada and we ran on a platform to address that,” he said, noting the government took the initial step of boosting social assistance for persons with a disability by $100 monthly as an interim measure.

“Poverty’s going to have to be addressed in a bunch of phases, there are so many pieces to it, so many causes,” Fraser said. It could take years to bring about change, he cautioned while acknowledging the potential benefits of return-to-work policies.

“I know, from working with Wolfgang, that it’s the healthiest option for most people with work-related injuries,” Fraser said. “Return-to-work strategies have been adopted all over the world.”

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