The Social construction of people with disabilities through Social Welfare Policies in Canada

The Social construction of people with disabilities through Social Welfare Policies in Canada

Karen Lok Yi Wong

Many social welfare policies related to people with disabilities have an aim to address poverty. However, the reality is that the poverty of people with disabilities is not addressed by the policies. Worse, the policies accelerate their poverty. One of the key reasons accounting for the acceleration is that the policies socially construct people with disabilities in certain ways. Social construction refers to which the identity of a person is given or shaped by other people or the society. One way of identity giving or shaping is through social welfare policies.

This article will discuss how these policies socially construct people with disabilities. It will suggest that people with disabilities are socially constructed to be unemployable and inferior. Moreover, it will discuss the effects of the construction on people with disabilities, particularly explaining why their poverty is not addressed and even accelerated.

People with disabilities are socially constructed to be unemployable by social welfare policies related to them. For example, to be eligible for Canada Pension Plan Disability (CPP-D) benefits, people with disabilities have to prove that they are unemployable. Some may argue that people with disabilities claiming benefits are allowed to work to a certain extent. Nevertheless, the extent is still limited.

This requirement for benefits socially constructs people with disabilities to be unemployable. Such requirement can be explained by the history of segregation of the worthy poor and unworthy poor and the dominance of the Neo-conservative political ideology in Canada.

The segregation of the worthy poor and unworthy poor has its historical roots tracing back to the English Poor Law. The law clearly stipulated people who were employable and unemployable. Those who were employable yet claiming help were regarded as unworthy poor. In other words, they were not worthy of help. Those who were unemployable and claiming help were regarded as worthy poor. Namely, they were worth for help. The treatments to unworthy poor and worthy poor were very different. Unworthy poor received relief indoor, which meant that relief could only be received through hard work in the workhouses. The worthy poor received relief outdoor, which meant that relief was delivered to the poor’s house. Such division between worthy and unworthy poor still persists until today.

Moreover, the Neo-conservative ideology stresses that the market is the solution to social problems and state intervention should be as minimal / residual as possible to avoid encouraging welfare dependence of those who are employable but not working. Only those who are unemployable are worthy of benefits.

Therefore, social welfare policies followed such historical roots and ideology, providing benefits only to people who are unemployable because of their disabilities. However, the missing point is that employability and unemployability are not dichotomous but continuum concepts. People with disabilities can be both employable and unemployable to a certain extent, depending on the nature of the job and time. For example, a person with disabilities may not be able to work full-time because of his or her disabilities does not mean that he or she is totally unemployable. He or she may work part-time or do voluntary work instead.

The effects of being labeled as unemployable make people with disabilities more difficult to enter the labour market. The label intensifies the discrimination in the labour market that people with disabilities are unemployable and not able to do any work. Many people with disabilities who are on benefits also fear entering the labour market because of the potential claw back of their benefits. Therefore, even though many people with disabilities wish to enter the labour market, they remain unemployed. However, the benefits are inadequate for them to survive and thus many are in poverty. Being unemployed also means loss of some important aspects of their well-being, such as opportunities to build social networks and self-esteem through employment.

To be eligible for benefits such as CCP-D benefits and social assistance, people with disabilities require evidence or proof from the gatekeepers. These gatekeepers make the judgment whether people with disabilities are unemployable or in need for the benefits. They are usually professionals, such as physicians and social workers, who are considered by the society that they are able to make the judgment with objectivity according to their professional knowledge, skills and experience. This requirement socially constructed people with disabilities that they are unable to accurately self-declare their disabilities. However, many disabilities or symptoms of disabilities are less visible or even invisible to other people. Relying on judgment from gatekeepers instead of self-declaration of people with disabilities is indeed a form of oppression from professionals. It shows unequal power relations between service users and professionals. This is particularly the case in the mental health field.

The idea which people with disabilities are unable to do things like, or inferior to, people without disabilities has its historical roots: For example, there was a history that services to people with disabilities were delivered according to the charity model. Namely, staff and organizations that delivered services were considered to know what the best was for people with disabilities. Also, there was a history of institutionalization of people with disabilities that people with disabilities were separated from other people in the community. All these still left the society an impression that people with disabilities are inferior to those without. Relying on judgment from gatekeepers instead of self-declaration of people with disabilities for eligibility of benefits intensifies such impression.

However, such impression is a misnomer if the society views people with disabilities from a different angle. Referring to the social model, their disabilities are more a result of the environment which fails to accommodate their needs than their physical or mental impairments. They are the service users of services provided to them so their voices should be listened and addressed by service providers. They are a part of the community and society. However, the dominant ideology still seems to be that people with disabilities are inferior. This is because people who uphold such belief, namely, people who are “able”, seize more power and resources in the society.

Constructing people with disabilities to be inferior makes their voices difficult to be listened by the society and thus they are unable to determine or acquire what they need and want. The consequence is that policies, benefits and services are unable to meet their needs, for example, inadequacy of benefits or unjust resource allocation. This leads to a negative impact on their well-being, especially poverty.


Karen Lok Yi Wong @karenwonglokyi2 was trained in social policy for BA and MA at University of York, the United Kingdom and social work at UBC, Canada. She conducted research and analyzed policies on diverse areas such as healthcare, elder care and immigration and published and presented widely academically and professionally. She is a registered social worker in British Columbia, Canada and has been practicing in different settings related to healthcare and elder care. She is also a registered therapeutic counsellor, certified in thanatology: death, dying and bereavement, a clinical traumatologist and a translator and interpreter (English / Chinese).