After a few opening words from Susan Vida, NEADS Vice President External, keynote speaker Georges Grujic, Director, Programs, Office for Disability Issues welcomed more than 130 delegates to Ottawa. He conveyed the regrets of Deborah Tunis, Director-General for the Office for Disability Issues, who was unable to attend this conference.
Grujic acknowledged the work of Frank Smith, NEADS' National Coordinator, whose dedication to working on behalf of students with disabilities has been immeasurable. He then focused on the contributions made by NEADS, including:
- Helping high school students with disabilities make the transition into post-secondary education;
- Using technologies and adaptive equipment to help students with disabilities be successful in education;
- Using online technologies to build interactive communities of learning such as NEADS CampusNet;
- Addressing student leadership and employment issues to help students with disabilities make a successful transition from education to work.
All these issues relate to the federal government's innovation and disability agendas, said Grujic. The Minister of Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) has the lead responsibility for disability issues in the Government of Canada, and HRDC invests about $3 billion per year on disability programs, including:
- Employability Assistance for People with Disabilities (EAPD): This program helps people with disabilities find and keep jobs. Programs and services include support with post-secondary education, employment counselling, skills development, assistive aids and devices, and wage subsidies. EAPD agreements with the provinces are scheduled to end in March 2003. HRDC is currently exploring with the provinces the possibility of fast-tracking a comprehensive agreement to remove barriers to participation in work and learning for persons with disabilities.
- The Opportunities Fund: This fund helps people with disabilities prepare for, obtain, and maintain employment. It targets individuals who are not eligible to participate in programs funded by Employment Insurance. It involves local and regional programs delivered mostly by non-governmental organizations, as well as some pan-Canadian programs.
- The Canada Student Loans Program and Canada Study Grants: This program is the cornerstone of the government's commitment to accessible education and helps more than 340,000 students annually. Persons with disabilities, who make up 18% of the adult population, often incur greater education-related expenses, take longer to complete their studies, and may have fewer opportunities to generate funds to finance their education. The Canada Student Loans Program responds to the particular needs of students with permanent disabilities by offering relaxed eligibility criteria and loan forgiveness for those unable to repay their loans because of their disability.
In 2000/2001, the government invested over $11.2 million in the Canada Study Grants program to help students with disabilities with education-related costs for services and equipment, such as notetakers, interpreters and technical aids. Also, the maximum amount of the Canada Study Grant for students with permanent disabilities increased from $5,000 to $8,000 per year; and Canada Study Grants for high-need students with permanent disabilities were introduced to help cover financial needs not fully met by federal loans and provincial financial assistance.
- The Youth Employment Strategy: This program helps Canadian youth gain hands-on work experience and access learning opportunities that contribute to their ability to find and retain work in the future. It is delivered by 14 government departments and agencies, in co-operation with communities, universities, businesses, and organizations.
These four programs contribute to:
- Reduced financial barriers for those seeking post-secondary studies;
- An ability to get and keep better jobs;
- Greater economic independence and self-reliance;
- Enhanced quality of life and well-being.
The employability of persons with disabilities is a key focus for the federal government, which is working towards a more comprehensive strategy in this area. This issue is also addressed in Knowledge Matters: Skills and Learning for Canadians, a public policy paper released by the government in February 2002 as part of Canada's Innovation Strategy.
Since the Innovation Strategy was launched, HRDC and Industry Canada have held workshops across Canada to consult people regarding innovation and the economy. HRDC organized a best-practices workshop in Ottawa on improving employment for persons with disabilities on June 25, and Catherine McGowan from Winnipeg represented NEADS. A national summit on innovation will take place in Toronto on November 18-19, with representation from the disability community and student organizations.
A key message coming out of this process is that Canada's population is aging and there is a shortage of skilled workers. However, there are still barriers for people with disabilities in these areas. Employer attitudes, lack of accommodation, and the need for more education are three key issues. Though most new jobs will soon require at least post-secondary education, youth with disabilities are less likely to go on and complete post-secondary education than those without disabilities, Grujic said.
Last year, NEADS received funding from the Social Development Partnership Program for a high school outreach project that lead to the development of a transition guide to help high school students make critical decisions about post-secondary education. The project also includes a component to build the capacity for students to gain access to resources through the Internet. The Web site, which features the transition guide, is: www.neads.ca/movingon
Completing post-secondary education is a major consideration for labour force participation by people with disabilities. The full participation and employment of persons with disabilities is a priority in HRDC, which is working hard with the provinces and territories to move this agenda forward. Grujic concluded by wishing delegates a good conference, and assuring them that his office looks forward to hearing the outcomes.