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Vol 38  No 10
February 23, 2006


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Research finds complex barriers to women’s employment

By Leslie Vryenhoek

Michelle Murdoch, a master’s candidate in women’s studies, recently completed a study on disabled women and employment. (Photo by Leslie Vryenhoek).

Women across Canada and around the world will mark March 8, International Women’s Day, by commemorating the progress made in raising equality and opportunity for women. But as the Status of Women Canada website notes, despite great legal and cultural strides, there are many barriers still to overcome. And as a Memorial researcher’s work attests, this is particularly true for disabled women in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Michelle Murdoch, a master’s candidate in women’s studies, recently completed a study on disabled women and employment. Her project was unique in taking a gendered approach to disability ­ something rarely done.

“We always talk about people with disabilities, not men or women with disabilities,” Ms. Murdoch explained, adding this neutral approach plays into the notion that disabled people are not sexual. To illustrate her point, she observes that there are recognizable, sex-specific signs directing men and women to the appropriate public bathroom, but for disabled people, the symbol of a person in a wheelchair is the same for both genders.

What Ms. Murdoch found, in looking at disability through a gendered lens, surprised her. Human Resources Development Canada’s Office for Disability Issues sets the unemployment rate for disabled persons at about 50 per cent. Broken down by gender, however, far more women ­ as many as 75 per cent ­ are unemployed or underemployed.

Ms. Murdoch’s initial goal for her project, done in collaboration with the Independent Living Resource Centre and under the academic supervision of Dr. Diana Gustafson, was to examine the role of adaptive technology in helping disabled women secure employment. Adaptive technology refers to the hardware or software that can provide universal computer access, such as a Braille reader for a computer, or an adjustable desk.

The 12 women she involved in her participatory action research, however, wanted to focus first on other barriers.

“There’s so much more than just adaptive technologies in the workplace ­ so many other hurdles that have to be overcome first. They told me ‘we’ll get to the adaptive technology, but first let’s talk about all the other things,’” she said.

The participants, who represented a variety of ages and types of disability, told her that social attitudes play a bigger role in keeping disabled women out of the workplace than either inadequate adaptive technologies or insufficient education.

“The premise has always been that disabled women didn’t get jobs because they had insufficient education. All of the participants in my study had high school educations, and about two-thirds of them had university degrees, but they had all had trouble finding and maintaining employment,” Ms. Murdoch noted.

Part of the problem, she explained, is the lack of an effective, comprehensive plan. And the challenge is particularly acute in Newfoundland and Labrador, one of only two provinces without employment equity legislation.

Ms. Murdoch’s research led to a summary report, created at the request of participants, which outlines recommendations for provincial action. “The participants wanted something that could be sent to government, something that would be eye-catching and easily read.”

This full-colour booklet is accompanied by a CD containing the report in rich text, plain text and Braille-compatible formats, as well as a full research report. And because she wanted be as inclusive as possible, the booklet also contains a large, raised version (called a tactile medium) of the project’s logo ­ the universal sign for the female with a computer set inside the circle. “What was amazing was that visually-impaired people felt the computer and knew what it was, but they had no idea what the significance of the symbol was. They didn’t know symbols for male and female even existed,” Ms. Murdoch recalls.

What Ms. Murdoch’s report doesn’t contain is any indication of her research participants’ identities. “Some of these women were afraid to be identified, afraid that it would endanger their supports if they were seen as being critical.”

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