Emile: What our research initiative addresses is the growing gap between the reality of labour market barriers and opportunity for people with health conditions and disabilities and the types of supports and programs and policies that are provided in the work disability policy system. The system was designed years ago to serve very different needs than exist today in the labour market.
Ellen: One point that we'd like to make clear is that we don't see work disability policy as a topic for a fringe population of people with permanent or severe disabilities. Of course, it's a very important population, but most people at some point in their lives—in their working lives—have health conditions, whether they're brief or more prolonged, that keep them out of the labour force, and so that's one thing that our work disability policy initiative was directed at: basically everyone.
That means that we have a very broad partnership, because we have some partners who are interested in the very severe types of disabilities where people have struggled just to enter the labour force in the first place. After high school, for instance. Other partners are interested in mental health conditions that can come and go. Other partners are interested in work injury and workplace safety.
Alec: This project—and I'm so pleased that it was funded and supported by SSHRC and by the government—because it's a vital time right now when all kinds of partners are struggling with the kinds of issues that Ellen and Emile just outlined. They're struggling with systems built a long time ago that don't match up with our needs today. People who really could be getting back to work and aren't able to do so. So, in my case, my organization is helping around 15,000 people a year in Ontario navigate our workers' compensation system.
And one unique aspect of this project is that it brings partners together, not just with researchers but with each other. That lets employers sit down with labour, lets disabled groups sit down with healthcare providers. It lets a whole lot of different kinds of people get to know each other and solve problems together.
Emile: Our partners are as you described it on the ground. They’re in the field. They know what the issues are. They experience them every day. And so, they are defining the research priorities and knowledge gaps that we need to address as researchers.
Chronic and episodic disabilities are the new reality of the labour market and people, as they age, those are conditions that come and go over the life course that need support at some point in time during their engagement in the labor market. At other times, they might be able to engage more fully.
Alec: An awful lot of things have been learned about them, and one of the most important is not to stigmatize a disability but to encourage the person who has that disability to come forward, to step forward, and encourage the employer, and if there is a union, the union and the workplace, to become partners in really helping that person through a difficult situation.
Emile: Having students involved in this is critical. We are really about capacity-building in applied research on work disability policy. And so, we have had placeholders in the initiative for about 94 students over the seven years of the initiative at the doctoral level and at the postdoctoral level. So, you know, that will be a really important part of our initiative—building up a critical mass of researchers who can do work on a transdisciplinary work disability policy.
We want them to engage very closely with the partners as well, so we're trying to create some opportunities to do internships in the community so they get a real lived experience of what the issues are.