Employment and Employability

The issue
The unemployment rate for Deaf people is unacceptably high. There are few Deaf Canadians employed in the professions and in “high level” positions.

Our position
Claims about the “unemployability” of Deaf people are unacceptable. The real causes of high unemployment in the Deaf community are hearing patronization, inappropriate educational methodology, and systemic discrimination.

In 1998, we conducted a formal and rigorous data collection project involving more than 1,000 people in the Deaf community. We found that only 20% of Deaf Canadians are fully employed; 42% are under-employed; and 38% are unemployed.

In 2014-15, once again we conducted a formal survey of 365 Deaf Canadians, under the supervision of the retired Chief Statistician of Statistics Canada. This time the number of unemployed Deaf Canadians was 40%, an increase of 2% since 1998. All of the remaining 60% were either self-employed or short-term contract workers, 24% of them part-time.

The increase in unemployment since 1998 more or less matches the increase in unemployment among the general populace. That means, however, that it is still approximately 32% higher than the general unemployment rate.

In 1998, less than 6% of respondents were self-employed; in 2015, this figure had exploded to over 22%. We attribute this increase to two factors: (1) the Internet and electronic communications/media as a whole have opened up opportunities for Deaf Canadians to create their own jobs as software engineers, game creators, on-line businesses, or even just buying and selling through eBay, Kijiji, and similar markets; (2) Deaf individuals have given up on governments to create jobs and have given up the struggle to convince non-Deaf employers to hire them; instead, they have resorted to supporting themselves by serving their own community, either through personal businesses or through contract employment.

This conclusion extends the findings of the 1998 survey which proved that the Deaf community is its own best employers, particularly in the fields of education, social services, technology (e.g., website design and management), and video productions.

It should be noted that, in common with most self-employed non-Deaf Canadians, Deaf entrepreneurs receive low income from their businesses. A majority – almost one-third – were earning less than $15,000 per year, compared to the Canadian average income of $37,313. A mere 21% of Deaf Canadians earn over $50,000 per year.

The primary reason why Deaf people can only find work in the Deaf community or by running their own small enterprises is the barriers to their participation in non-Deaf society. Potential employers may be reluctant to hire Deaf workers because of assumptions that communicating with them is “too much trouble” and meeting their needs in the workplace would impose a financial strain. Ignorance and a lack of information also lead to these wrong assumptions: for example, employers are frequently unaware that the cost of interpreters is a deductible business expense, and that other means of accommodation (such as visual alarms) can be subsidized by both federal and provincial incentive programs.

Such attitudes are part of a systemic discrimination against Deaf job applicants; they are also part of the discrimination against the promotion of Deaf workers to positions of responsibility and seniority. Deaf representation in the professions and in “high level” (or “high power”) positions such as corporate executives is almost non-existent. To the best of our knowledge, Canada has only four or five Deaf lawyers, two Deaf doctors, two Deaf psychologists, and three or four Deaf university professors. Not one of the major telecommunications companies or the major financial institutions in Canada has a single Deaf employee at the executive or upper management level. Most of the thirty or so service agencies (including branch offices) that specifically serve Deaf people are run by non-Deaf executive directors or presidents/CEOs. Only one of the Schools For the Deaf is led by a Deaf principal or superintendent, and none of the provincial government departments responsible for these schools employ Deaf people in key, decision-making positions.

The Public Service Commission, which is responsible for most of the employees of the federal government, reported that only 0.1 percent of the federal civil service is Deaf. Most of them are contract (temporary) workers in menial positions such as file clerks and maintenance staff. Even those employed in government “white-collar” jobs, such as accountants and tax workers, are blocked from advancement by the “bilingual imperative” that requires fluency in both English and French; it is not the imperative itself that is the blockade so much as the bureaucracy’s refusal to recognize fluency in ASL and LSQ as meeting the bilingual imperative.

As for government job-creation programs, the most successful was the CAD-ASC’s own National Deaf Jobs Strategy, a collection of programs in the late 1990s that created or found jobs and provided training for 100 Deaf Canadians – most of whom are amazingly still successful in the fields we targeted for them, 15 years later! Naturally enough, no level of government has provided the funding to continue or revive this Strategy; it must embarrass them still we had a 100% success rate, whereas the success rate of their own job-creation programs in putting Deaf Canadians to work could be measured in a single-digit percentage.

The Canadian Association of the Deaf – Association des Sourds du Canada urges the following measures:

  • Strengthening both federal and provincial employment equity legislation, in keeping with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
  • Aggressive information campaigns to eliminate business concerns about the cost of accommodation.
  • Funding for the Deaf community – specifically Deaf-run, Deaf-controlled organizations and businesses – to enable it to employ, train, and promote Deaf workers.
  • A fair and committed partnership between governments and Deaf organizations to work together to help Deaf Canadians become more employable, and especially to move more of them into professional and executive positions.
  • Federal and provincial employment programs must move their emphasis away from creating training opportunities and towards creating job opportunities instead.
  • The federal government in particular must set an example by drastically increasing the percentage of its own workforce that is Deaf, especially at the executive and policy levels.
  • Most especially, Deaf people must be put in control of their own institutions, including the Deaf schools and service agencies.

Recommended reading: The Employment and Employability of Deaf Canadians, by James Roots and David Kerr, Canadian Association of the Deaf, 1998


The Canadian Association of the Deaf-Association des Sourds du Canada
606- 251 Bank Street
Ottawa, Ontario K2P 1X3
(613) 565-2882