Citation: Barile, M., (1996). Education and Employment for the Next Millennium. Women's Education des femmes, 12(2), p.42.

Éducation et emploi en prévision du prochain millénaire

par Maria Barile

Si celles qui, parmi vous, ont occupé des emplois stables dans le passé, remettent en question la stabilité économique de ces derniers au prochain millénaire, que réserve 1’avenir aux femmes handicapées? Selon moi, la majorité de ces femmes éprouveront des difficultés encore plus grandes qu'aujourd'hui pour faire des études supérieures et se trouveront par conséquent dans une situation pire qu’actuellement.

Un certain nombre de facteurs freinent les progrès des femmes handicapées dans le domaine de l'équité en éducation. L'un de ces facteurs est l’actuel crise socio-économique. Des changements sociaux se produisent dans ce pays lorsque l'économie est florissante. Or, quand on parle des handicapés, la situation économique joue un rôle clé, puisque qui dit accessibilité, dit dépenses. De plus, les personnes qui faisaient leurs études élémentaires de 1940 à 1980, les ont faites dans des écoles isolées, la qualité de l'éducation y étant très faible.

Nombre d'hommes et de femmes handicapés se dirigent vers des domaines connexes à la justice sociale, car ils et elles ont eux-mêmes eu à faire face à des obstacles et à 1a discrimination. Mais il faut se trouver là où se trouve le pouvoir économique. Les hommes et les femmes handicapés doivent par conséquent détenir des outils éducatifs et des compétences s'ils veulent être concurrentiels sur le nouveau marché du travail. Toutes les personnes handicapées devraient avoir les ressources et les possibilités de s'inscrire à tous les niveaux scolaires, d'y réussir et de faire carrière dans la plupart des secteurs professionnels.

Education and Employment for the Next Millennium

by Maria Barile

For most non-disabled people, higher education has been a means for greater opportunities and stable employment. Until recently, most women with disabilities were assigned to the underclass or not assigned any status at all. Part of the basis for this reality is their lack of opportunities for higher education. Given that women with disabilities are still at a lower stratum today compared to non disabled people, what effect will the present economic downslide have on them? If those who have had access to guaranteed stable employment in the past are questioning their economic stability in the next millennium, what will the future economic uncertainty mean for women with disabilities?

It is my contention that for the majority of women with disabilities, higher education may become even more difficult to attain. This is due to the present downsliding and transforming economy, as well as the effects of combined and ongoing sexism and ableism. Women with disabilities who do reach graduate and post graduate degrees may find that their outcome is not on par with non-disabled women or men with disabilities. Without higher education and degrees, people with disabilities will likely be worse off.

University Degrees

General information and statistical data regarding women with disabilities and their educational and employment conditions began to appear in academic and popular circles only in the late 1980s. That information presented an unfavourable educational and employment picture. It showed that although women and men with disabilities were almost even in attending elementary schools, the percentage shifted when attending higher education. One study, by L'Association des adultes handicapées de la Maurice on the economic realities of women with disabilities, found that among its 63 respondents, 46.3% had attended primary school but only 3.18 % had gone to university.2 L'Aassociation study's sheds light upon an interesting factor: 16% of the women interviewed had accepted jobs below their academic qualifications. These figures agree with those of Statistics Canada for the Montreal area (see graph).

The number of non-disabled women and men who obtained university degrees in 1991 and those who obtained them twenty years earlier has increased 17% for women and 14% for men. This is proportionate to the gap between women and men with disabilities who currently obtain degrees (5.6% and 6.2% respectively) and those of the non-disabled community who obtained them in 1991 (19.2% of women and 20.6% of men).3 Despite the social changes of the last two decades, women and men with disabilities still face systemic barriers in the achievement of a university degree. Some of these barriers are lack of architectural access to buildings, lack of access in the classroom, inflexible administrative procedures, very little financial assistance, insensitive staff and classmates, etc.

Other barriers that women with disabilities face stem from sexism experienced by all women in the academic world. A recent report entitled Women in Canada shows that during the last two decades there has been an increase in attainment of university degrees by women but still significantly fewer than men.4 What does this mean for women with disabilities? They face, on the one hand, discrimination due to lack of access and, on the other, a male oriented structure that creates further inequity.

The small percentage difference between men and women with disabilities who attain university degrees (approximately .6%) changes when looking at the area of employment. The 1994 Employment Equity Act annual report estimated that average salary of men with disabilities working full time was $45,063 and that of women with disabilities was $32,493 for those who had been hired under the Employment Equity legislation.5 There appear to be unaccounted variables for the unequal salary distributions between men and women with disabilities. Thus, inequities between men and women with disabilities are perennial and present in many socio-economic areas.

Current Climate

Two factors further impede progress for women with disabilities in their struggle for academic equity. First is the historical period in which their current socio-economic struggle is taking place. The present struggle for social change by women with disabilities has been compared to the feminist struggle of the fifties and sixties.6 The above data on the gap in attainment of university degrees between non-disabled women and women with disabilities supports this analysis. This suggests that, like their non-disabled sisters, women with disabilities may have other obstacles to overcome-such as economics, individual disability-specific barriers, etc.-before they can tackle the academic ones.


Level Men % Women %

No formal schooling





Grades 1-8










Some post-secondary





Certificate or diploma










As well, people whose onset of disability came during childhood and who were students between 1940 and 1980 received their elementary education, for the most part, in segregated schools. The quality of that education was minimal. It served as a means for limiting most from achieving higher education. Among those who succeeded to higher education, the majority did so in fields that are, today, under-employing, such as liberal arts, social services and the like.

The second factor comprises the changing social and industrial economies. We are getting a clear message from all levels of government that there is an "economic countercurrent" to social change at this time. Non-disabled women are said to have made strides in obtaining university degrees in the last two decades during which time the economy was "favourable to social change." However, it is becoming progressively unfavourable and we can predict that in the next two decades social change will be more difficult to achieve.

When looking at disabilities, the state of the economy is crucial. One needs only to recall that accessibility requires expenditure. Even in what were supposed to be the good times, securing appropriate financial assistance to render environments accessible has not been easy. To achieve the same results as their non-disabled sisters in the area of academia, women with disabilities will need to be singularly focused on this goal. Education rather than employment would need to be a priority for organizations of women with disabilities.

Technology Sectors

From the emerging economic analyses, one notes that the employments of future are primarily in sectors of high technologies, biomedical and computer sciences. In these analyses, I have yet to find any mention of women and men with disabilities, nor in which sectors women and men with disabilities could find work in the next millennium, nor how the market can adapt itself to integrate them.

These sectors are the most difficult to access for women and men with disabilities primarily because very few of us have been encouraged to enroll in them. The educational institution's perception of which group of people is appropriate for society's labour market may be the rationale for encouraging them into specific fields,7 but institutions also, in this way, screen out from these fields individuals deemed unwanted by the labour market. As a result, sensitization of people in power in these areas is minimal.

There needs to be a major shift in thinking about who can enter fields of high technologies and sciences, and administrators and policy makers in these fields should adapt their attitudes. In other words, there needs to be a shift from the current paradigm in which women and men with disabilities are seen solely as subjects to whom these sectors can render services, to a more egalitarian attitude that is respectable and acceptable of women and men with disabilities as equal partners and competent colleagues.

Women and men with disabilities also need to adopt a different perspective about fields of study. The vast majority of people with disabilities have lived with social barriers and injustices. Consequently, a large number of them orient their studies to fields of social justice. But social change can no longer be the sole focus; there is a need to be where the economic power lies. To arrive there, women and men with disabilities need the educational tools that will make them competitive and competent individuals, and we all need to be active in the ongoing analyses of the educational and employment needs for the next millennium. This

will ensure that women and men with disabilities are not relegated to segregated areas in the labour market of the next millennium.

L’économie sociale

This is not to say, that as a group, people with disabilities should not be involved in I'éeconomie sociale (community economy). L 'économie sociale includes community work, servicing, ethics-sectors that have primarily relied on government subsidies and that provide low paying or volunteer services. These are areas that are familiar with the wealth of knowledge and experience that women and men with disabilities can bring and they are sensitive to the need for adaptation. Those individuals who choose to work in these fields may find it easier. But given that such job opportunities are usually poor paying and not often available, if government and businesses were to give the community sector the economic value it deserves it would be a viable option for many more.

What is crucial however, is ending the politic of restrictionism in areas of education that has contributed to the segregation of women and men with disabilities into work ghettos. The system must provide the younger generation of people with disabilities a wider range of options, allowing the majority of people with disabilities to enroll and succeed in all academic levels and in the vast majority of fields. This is particularly important for women with disabilities who are still at the bottom of the strata.


Maria Barile holds an M.S. W. from McGill University. She is a past Vice-Chair of DAWN Canada and is currently Co-Chair of Action des femmes handicapées de Montréal.

1. Fichten, Catherine S. Education: Breaking Down the Invisible Barriers (Challenges for the 21st Century) Keynote address at the annual convention of the National Educational Association of Disabled Students, November 1994.

2. Association des adultes handicapés de la Maurice, Project: La femme handicapée et la société, Rapport d'enquêete, 1993.

3. Statistics Canada, Women in Canada 1995, Catalogue 89.503E (obtained through internet), and Statistics Canada, Adults with Disabilities: employment and education, Catalogue 82-554, pp.80 & 224, 1991.

4. Statistics Canada, Women in Canada 1995.

5. Human Resources Development Canada, Annual Report: Employment Equity 1994. Public Inquiries Centre, Hull Quebec, 1994.

6. Lonsdale, Susan. Women and Disability: The Experience of Physical Disability Among Women, London: MacMillan, 1990; Morris, Jenny. Pride Against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes to Disability, Gabriola Island: New Society Publisher, 1991.

7. Oakley, Anne. Subject: Woman, New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.