Disability and Work in Canada 2020 Virtual Conference:
The Strategy in Action—Pathways and Impacts

Disability & Work in Canada initiative logo


Achieving equality of opportunity and choice in careers, jobs and work 

Virtual Conference – December 1 & 2 and 6 & 7, 2021

The Disability and Work in Canada 2021 (DWC 2021) Conference was held virtually this year over four days in early December (December 1 & 2 and December 6 & 7) from 12:15 to 3:30 EDT. The theme for this year’s conference was the “Achieving equality of opportunity and choice in careers, jobs and work,” with subthemes for each day as follows:

  • Wednesday December 1, 2021, at 12:15 to 3:30 EDT – Fully including persons with disabilities in the COVID19 recovery
  • Thursday December 2, 2021, at 12:15 to 3:30 EDT – Making inclusive workplaces a reality
  • Monday December 6, 2021, at 12:15 to 3:30 EDT – Ensuring secure and comprehensive supports for persons with disabilities
  • Tuesday December 7, 2021, at 12:15 to 3:30 EDT – Moving forward together towards full inclusion in employment

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DWC2021 Conference Recaps

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Conference Recap


This year’s DWC2021 Virtual Conference was the fifth and new milestone DWC conference with incredible energy and record attendance (with 540+ registrants!) from all across Canada! This was an important conference which built momentum to move forward together into 2022 to continue to implement the Pan-Canadian Strategy for Disability and Work.

  • We heard the need for meaningful partnerships with Indigenous communities, the need for full inclusion, equity, positive transformations, the need for comprehensive supports that are customized and contextualized, disability-confident employers and workplaces and sustainable employment opportunities. With labour shortages, it is important to take different approaches to engaging people and tap into talent.
  • We heard some stark critical data and observations about the current challenges facing persons with disabilities, however we also heard about many promising and inspiring initiatives and effective practices in Canada.
  • This conference had a strong focus and anchor in intersectionality and DWC aims to continue this conversation.
  • Networking opportunities allowed persons with disabilities to have a voice and share their perspectives.
  • As we move forward together in 2022, we need to connect the DWC vision and pillars with the critiques and also with promising and concrete tools and practices in seeking dignity, a livable income and employment for persons with disabilities.


Day 1 Summary


Day 1  was an amazing start to the conference. Here are some highlights from yesterday’s sessions:

  • Minister Qualtrough announced the funding for the community-based Disability Inclusion Action Plan awarded to Inclusion Canada and Muscular Dystrophy Canada to consult and engage the disability communities across Canada, and ensure the engagement includes those voices not normally heard. Minister Qualtrough followed her keynote with a lively questions and answer session.
  • People with disabilities had their voices heard but remain frustrated. The voice of people with disabilities must be heard. "This is my challenge to all of us, to write a new story, where persons with disabilities are valued and included, where our contributions are wanted by the wider society. This must begin by involving more of us in the conceptualizing, development and implementation of new policies and programs, because what we are really talking about are conscious public policy decisions and not just accidents of history." - John Rae
  • CRPD encourages others to be included with the shadow report. All voices need to be heard
  • COVID has highlighted some of the difficulties that people with disabilities were facing beforehand.
  • That in Canada, the disability lens, or framework, is currently being applied to funding that is mainstreamed
  • The first session of networking went well – and we encourage you to continue participating in today’s session
  • Questions of feeding into standards development through co-design and engagement allowed participants to talk about barriers to employment and the need for involvement with the process.
  • The DWC governance feedback included ensuring 50% people with lived experience on the Steering Committee, as well as how the initiative can influence positive change within all the areas of the conference.
  • Statistically, COVID hit people with disabilities hard during the pandemic but it’s difficult to know what’s going to happen during recovery.
  • International businesses are becoming more inclusive of employment; that commitments of businesses internationally around Disability and Inclusion has strengthened. 
  • Sharing of lived experiences was a highlight. Story-telling of personal experiences of disclosure, transportation, and unfair living experiences were shared and valued


Day 2 Summary


Day 2 was another successful day of the DWC2021 Virtual Conference, focusing on the theme Making inclusive workplaces a reality! Here are some highlights:

  • From the Day 2 Keynote, entitled How can we make deep change in the workplace for the full inclusion of persons with disabilities?
    • We heard that “We need to build bridges, break down silos. Workers with disabilities must lead and guide this work.” - Lily Chang, Secretary-Treasurer, Canadian Labour Congress
    • “The voices of persons with disabilities are vital. Among the most vulnerable are those with an intellectual disability. It is critical that labour and community work beyond our silos together to achieve a better world.” - Carlos Sosa, a worker with a disability with the United Food and Commercial Workers
    • Steve Mantis provided a framework with five key messages: 1. Employment of persons with disabilities is doable and can be profitable for business; 2. Accommodations are linked to issues of power, control and communication; 3. Advocacy and coalition building work; Rights for all workers equals rights for workers with disabilities; 4. Measurement and accountability are key to positive transformations; Count what you value or you will value what you count; 5. Our public systems are failing us.
  • In the session Supporting Inclusive Employment for People with Intellectual Disabilities and Autistic Persons in the Federal Public Service of Canada, we heard that we are really at the cusp of an important juncture in this post-pandemic world. Some of the changes will favour persons with disabilities and autism. We can make our workplaces more inclusive and accessible.
  • In Tools and Strategies to Support Employers' Efforts to Include Persons Living with Disabilities in the Workforce, we heard that there is a distinction between integrating people and inclusion. Inclusion goes beyond integration. It’s about minimizing obstacles at many levels.
  • There was incredible engagement in the session on Disability, Women, Youth and Employment (with 140+ participants) and the networking session that followed. It was discussed that there needs to be an intersectional framework for disability and employment for women instead of just talking about a disability framework, and women have different issues when we’re talking disability and employment.
  • In several sessions, we heard that disability confident employers have to have support from the top, business leaders have to be leading the charge, that business leaders/CEOs need to be signing the documents that are saying that they will be disability-confident or disability-inclusive, and that there has to be a plan and good management strategy in place - you have to assess your environment and the situation, set your goals, make the plan, evaluate and change.
  • A key theme from the Funding Employment Services to Create Sustainable Employment Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities session was that where you do need to provide supports to people, it helps that they can be customizable as people have different needs, and use three Cs approach: be CustomizableContextualize and Comprehensive. We also learned that in terms of financial incentives, sometimes just a temporary incentive can work, and can help getting people through the door with employers who are mistrustful, and once in the door, they may not need an incentive again.


Day 3 Summary


The third day of the conference yesterday focused on the theme Ensuring secure and comprehensive supports for persons with disabilities. Here are a few highlights:

  • The keynote speaker, Yazmine Laroche, Deputy Minister, Public Service Accessibility, highlighted the use of specific targets for the employment of persons with disabilities in the federal public service. The targets serve as a guide to their ambition and a way to track progress.
  • Key messages from the parallel sessions:
    • In the session "Change!"- A call for non-punitive, ethical, evidence-based and person centred supports for workers with Substance-Use Disorder, we heard that one size does not fit all. - "In individual situations, the focus should be on the supports and accommodations that the person with disabilities need to be fully included in the workplace. One size does not fit all" 
    • We heard that income supports must lift people out of poverty and avoid creating barriers to employment in the session Income Supports for people and workers with disabilities
    • Injured workers with mental health issues report a lack of coordination or continuity of care, as if the system is telling people to “hurry up and heal.” Suggestions for improvement include educating nurse consultants and case managers around commmunication, sensitivity issues and compassion, as most people want to be at work. - Session on the Experiences, Impacts and Service Needs for injured workers in the WSIB process in Northwestern Ontario 
    • In the session Exploring Differences between Advocates and Transitional Navigators, we heard that the intersection of disability with other life circumstances, such as being an Indigenous person, or part of a racialized group, or being a recent immigrant can add to the difficulties people face in daily life and in finding and sustaining employment. We also heard that skilled navigators can help people build self-reliance and develop skills to be able to self-advocate and be self-reliant, which has more sustainability for the ability to deal with the system.
    • Evaluation needs to be participatory and community-based, not dictated by a funder, as we heard in Making Canada’s complex web of disability supports easier to navigate – We want to hear from you / Faciliter la navigation du labyrinthe des soutiens aux personnes handicapées du Canada – Nous voulons votre avis
    • The session on Career Access Professional Services – Campus and community partnerships, an inclusive foundation during the student journey and beyond convocation highlighted the importance of providing supports to students with disabilities during their transition into the world of work such as volunteer experience, part-time work experience, mentorship, help with disclosure, onboarding, coaching afterwards, as well as helping employers becoming disability-confident
    • The networking sessions are continuing to provide opportunities for people to be seen and heard and share their perspectives
    • The session End the Wait: Addressing the Shortfall in Disability Supports and Services in Canada addressed that in addition to inadequate income support, access to supports for daily living or for school or for employment is often very inadequate for people with disabilities, given the fragmented nature of support programs. Navigating the various programs that offer some support can also be a huge challenge. 
  • Finally, a key point throughout the conference has been around action - addressing the barriers to programs & services. The importance of having people with lived experience that represent community-based organizations in decision-making roles as system managers is key to removing barriers.


Day 4 Summary


Day 4 of the DWC2021 Virtual Conference yesterday was engaging and energizing, focusing on the theme Moving forward together towards full inclusion in employment! Find the highlights below:

  • Keynote speaker Neil Belanger, Executive Director, B.C. Aboriginal Network on Disability Society (BCANDS), spoke about Indigenous disability and employment -- barriers and opportunities, and brought an Indigenous lens to this initiative. We heard that BCANDS takes a holistic approach to provide the supports necessary for persons with disabilities to be successful in their position and path forward. Inclusivity is giving people the opportunity to stay connected to their communities and culture, regardless of what their culture might be. There needs to be a call to action for Indigenous people and be able to move forward and making sure employment is a high priority and that Indigenous people are involved in all planning aspects for Indigenous people living with disabilities.
  • In the session Shifting from sheltered work towards inclusive employment in Canada, we heard that there is a real need for government effort and that funding parameters have to change so that persons with disabilities can have real work with real pay. People with developmental disabilities and intellectual disabilities shared their struggles with employment and sheltered work. - “That was my first job. I was so naïve and I didn’t know what I was getting into. I felt so used.”; “Sheltered work sometimes is hidden for training, but then people are in training for up to 30 years.”
  • We learned about a promising initiative from the team at Eviance around bringing in new leaders around disability knowledge, rights and research. This was an example of a program which is value-based, where they are intentionally trying to promote looking at disability issues from a broad-base, from younger activist persons with disabilities, in the session Realizing Leadership of Youth with Disabilities in Community-Based Employment & The Impact of Race and Ethnicity on School and Work Outcomes For Young Adults with Disabilities
  • The session Cross-Disability Accessibility and Diverse Intersectionality at Work was a powerful session with 118 participants. This panel had their own lived experience and were actively involved in overcoming and promoting an inclusive workplace. Their key message was that it takes strong organizational commitment to overcome layers of prejudice and discrimination. If you make the commitment, you can turn things around and create an inclusive workplace with positive programs and policies.
  • There was discussion on the empowering environment versus the focus on any individual and what does this mean across sectors, different places of work, and workplace parties, in the Employabilité, intégration et maintien en emploi: contribution des environnements capacitants, led by ergonomists. - “Don’t trap workers with disabilities in one narrow job for their whole working life – provide different opportunities that help the person develop their work career.” - We also heard that workplaces trying to be inclusive are facing ergonomics challenges with adjusting to limitations that people might found themselves in. - “Ergonomists can play an important role in adjusting the workplace environment to be fully inclusive.”
  • The afternoon sessions had 200+ attendees, which included the plenary on Employee Engagement and Workplace Culture: exemplary movements going forward for engagement of employees with disabilities, and a delegate engagement opportunity on Reflections from the Conference: Moving Forward Together. The Plenary took on a fireside chat format, as we heard from cutting-edge organizations such as Microsoft and a small employer in Winnipeg on becoming disability-inclusive and how they are engaging employees and changing workplace culture, in hopes of providing motivation to other workplaces on what they’re doing. The Reflections session gave delegates an opportunity to have their voices heard and profiled promising practices and initiatives.
  • The inaugural Chair of the DWC Advisory Committee, Michael Prince, Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy, University of Victoria, and member of the Canadian Disability Advisory Group (CDAG), closed the conference with a summary and synthesis of the conference to create a sense of hope and common purpose for 2022.