Written for an academic audience, Dustin Galer’s Working Towards Equity: Disability Rights and Employment in Late Twentieth-Century Canada

Book Review: Working Towards Equity: Disability Rights and Employment in Late Twentieth-Century Canada — by Kathleen Ogilvie, volunteer with Workers’ History Museum

Written for an academic audience, Dustin Galer’s Working Towards Equity: Disability Rights and Employment in Late Twentieth-Century Canada explores the experience of disability in Canada throughout the twentieth century. Through the labour movement, Galer examines multiple disability movements that emerged over the 1960s to the 2000s and explores the activists, employers, parents, and political factors that had an impact on these movements. He argues that while these movements often clashed, over time they constituted a combined push for greater rights and opportunities in the labour market for people with disabilities. Galer interviews people with disabilities from three generations of workers through the period and integrates their experiences and perspectives throughout the book.

Galer states that the book is written as a social history of the disability community in Canada, placed within the framework of critical disability studies. Focusing specifically on Toronto and Ontario more broadly, the book progresses in a roughly chronological fashion, sometimes spending more than one chapter on a particular period in order to explore relevant themes in relation to each other. For example, chapters 1 to 5 follow changes over time in activist movements. From chapter 6 to the end, however, Galer begins to explore particular themes, such as the role of employers in the integration of people with disabilities in the workforce, how awareness campaigns were often thwarted by a capitalist market system, and how government employers promoted and became a model for an equitable work environment.

Galer pulls from a wide range of sources for this investigation. His analysis relies on a wide variety of publications and documentaries used by activists to promote hiring people with disabilities and first-hand accounts of work experiences from the oral interviews that he conducted. Additionally, Galer references advertisements, official reports, and the work of other writers on the topic who have done more specific and deep analyses of each topic. The combination of this variety of source material allows Galer to examine the topic from all angles and provides a thorough synthesis of each period and theme being examined.

Each chapter integrates comments from participants that Galer interviewed about their experiences joining the workforce throughout the timeframe covered in this volume. While this makes for excellent insight overall into the experiences of people with disabilities throughout the 1960s to the 2000s there are times where these experiences read more like interjections. In these moments, the reader moves from the narrative into the interview examples as if they are two separate sections of the chapter. Regardless, the collection of evidence drawn from these interviews is invaluable and contributes to what makes this book so important.

The first chapter provides an excellent example of these interviews being used well to compare the experiences of Galer’s interviewees over time. Galer profiles six different informants with visual impairments. The first two began their careers during the 1960s in Toronto. Both grew up in working class families in which labour was essential to forming one’s personal identity. Galer notes that for both, the importance of work to their development and identity superseded their identities as people with disabilities. Similarly, both participants noted that it was the expectations of their families and caregivers that they work.

In contrast to this, one of the participants who entered the workforce during the 1970s indicated that work was essential to financial survival, but rather than finding their identity through working, they found that doing so had a negative impact on their mental health. These mental health issues persisted into the 1980s. Despite increased awareness and advocacy campaigns about mental health issues, this participant refused to disclose their disabilities because they expected that they would not be accommodated and feared that it would negatively impact their job security.

Galer offer a dynamic examination of the history of disability rights activism in Canada and examines the various labour movements not for how they differed, but for how they related to each other. These movements existed at the level of individual action and organized political groups. These relationships culminated into a broader push for disabled rights in Canada in the working community as well as more broadly. Galer’s account of disability labour movements in Canada gives voice to the people at every aspect of these movements, and it is for this reason that this book is an important contribution to disability studies and Canadian labour history.