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REF NO.: 218

SUBJECT: Disabled women in Newfoundland and Labrador face barriers to employment

DATE: March 6

March 8 is International Women’s Day, which commemorates the progress made in raising equality and opportunity for women and spotlights barriers that still exist. As a Memorial researcher’s work attests, the barriers are particularly complex for disabled women in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Michelle Murdoch, a master’s candidate in women’s studies at Memorial University working under the supervision and guidance of Dr. Diana Gustafson, 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 explains, adding this neutral approach plays into the notion that disabled people are non-sexual.

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, 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 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,’” Ms. Murdoch says.

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 notes.

Part of the problem, she explains, is the lack of an effective, comprehensive plan. And the challenge is particularly acute in Newfoundland and Labrador, which lacks 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.”

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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For more information or to arrange an interview with Ms. Murdoch, please contact Leslie Vryenhoek, communications co-ordinator, Faculty of Arts, Memorial University, 737-8292 or


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