The phrase “people with disabilities” describes a wide variety of individuals including those with physical, learning, mental health, hearing and vision disabilities. Recognizing the diversity of disability is crucial to understanding each individual’s unique lived experience. It is important to understand the impact of systemic barriers faced by people with differing disabilities in order to dismantle those barriers.
HEQCO recently published a report on students with disabilities. Two of our most important findings were that people with disabilities face barriers which impact their postsecondary education (PSE) experiences, and that the type of disability they have matters — a lot. For example, people with a physical, mental health or learning disability are less likely to attain a PSE credential than those without disabilities. The limitations of Canadian data make it difficult to explore why there are differences between disability type.
Having a disability affects the labour market outcomes of recent PSE graduates as well. Graduates with disabilities have higher unemployment rates and those with a learning, mental health or physical disability are less likely to have paid work. Recent graduates with disabilities are also less likely to have work benefits, such as dental coverage and paid sick leave, than recent graduates without disabilities. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of these findings is that these differences in outcomes manifest immediately after graduation and persist throughout an individual’s career. We need data to reflect the lived experiences of people with different disability types to help us develop smarter targeted policies designed to address the specific needs — both immediate and lifelong — of those that need them most. Better data would also allow us to evaluate new programs and policies and make sure they are working as intended.
As a first step, we need to acknowledge that people with different types of disability confront different challenges. Institutions and governments should collect disability-specific data that reflects the lived experience of their students. Only then can students, institutions and employers generate solutions that better address the specific barriers that people with disabilities face. Without the data to reveal their complete and intersectional experiences, research and policy will continue to fall short of ensuring that all people with disabilities can participate in PSE and the labour market in a meaningful and equitable way.
PSE institutions and governments should work with disabled communities to ensure the terms used in data collection and research are accurate and appropriate. Fostering and maintaining relationships with disabled communities will mitigate the use of inaccurate and dated terminology as communities evolve. Additionally, strong ties to these communities can create a platform where people with disabilities can speak directly to institutions and governing bodies about the types of data that should be collected. Such partnerships should intentionally inform the development of programs and policies designed to benefit people with disabilities.
Disability-specific data that reflects lived experiences will enable researchers to apply an intersectional approach to the creation of robust, high-impact policy solutions. There is no single solution that will solve every challenge faced by such a large and diverse group but closing the data gap to better understand and address the barriers encountered by people with disabilities would be a meaningful step forward.
Ken Chatoor is a senior researcher and Victoria Barclay is a research intern at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.