What We Heard Report: Supporting Youth with Disabilities through the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy

From: Employment and Social Development Canada

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What We Heard Report: Supporting Youth with Disabilities through the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy

Message from the minister

The Youth Employment and Skills Strategy helps young Canadians gain the skills, knowledge and experience they need to secure good jobs. The Strategy supports a wide diversity of young Canadians, including youth with disabilities.

Last year, we met virtually and in person with a broad range of stakeholders, including youth with disabilities, employers and service providers, to hear what we could do better, and where support was needed most.

We heard that youth with disabilities are resilient, motivated and ready to work. They thrive in the workplace when spaces are inclusive and accessible.

We heard directly from employers who want to be able to foster greater accessibility in the workplace, but they also noted that there is a lack of resources to support these changes.

Service providers shared that mental health supports are the key to success for youth with disabilities. They highlighted the need for flexible programming that enables them to take a tailored approach that responds to the diversity of requirements.

And we heard so much more.

Now, thanks to these sessions and the honest feedback from participants, we have a clearer understanding of the way forward and are ready to take what we’ve learned to enhance supports for youth with disabilities.

I’m pleased to share this What We Heard report, and I would like to thank everyone who took the time to participate in these sessions. Your input will be invaluable as we move forward to make a difference in the lives of youth with disabilities.


The Honourable Marci Ien, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth


The Youth Employment and Skills Strategy (YESS) is a horizontal initiative led by Employment and Social Development Canada. It is delivered in collaboration with 11 other federal departments, agencies and Crown Corporations. Together, these 12 partners deliver funding programs to help Canadian youth (15 to 30) develop the skills and gain the experience they need to successfully transition into the labour market.

The Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth engaged with stakeholders to examine how the YESS could better support youth with disabilities. This engagement, completed in 2022, will inform the Government’s action to fulfill the commitment to better support young Canadians with disabilities under the YESS.

About the engagement

The Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth held in-person and virtual engagement sessions to gather input from 3 stakeholder groups:

  • Youth with disabilities
  • Employers that work with youth with disabilities
  • Disability service providers (for example, employment and training providers and national disability organizations)

Discussions focused on how to foster the enabling conditions that improve pre-employment and workplace supports for youth with disabilities. Before each engagement session, 3 broad questions were shared with participants to give them an opportunity to prepare for the discussion. Registration was limited so that each participant could speak and be heard.

Participants were asked about the issues they face around employment for youth with disabilities. They were also asked about the supports that could be provided, and how Employment and Social Development Canada could improve programming.

The engagement also contributed to increasing knowledge around serving youth with disabilities across the 12 YESS federal partner organizations.

Employment and Social Development Canada gathered input from organizations that work with youth with disabilities to develop the invitation list. The department sought to recruit participants from all provinces and territories.

Service provider roundtable

  • Held virtually on September 22, 2022
  • Number of participants: 12
  • Geographic representation: National, British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador

Employer roundtable

  • Held virtually on September 27, 2022
  • Number of participants: 7
  • Geographic representation: National, Alberta, Ontario
  • Sector representation: Banking, social enterprise, food service, manufacturing, business consulting and non-profit

Whitehorse stakeholder meetings

  • Held in-person on October 13 to 14, 2022
  • Number of participant organizations: 2
  • Participants: Yukon University and Inclusion Yukon

Youth with disabilities roundtable

  • Held virtually on December 13, 2022
  • Number of participants: 7
  • Geographic representation: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec

What we heard: key themes

Benefits of employing youth with disabilities

“It feels like treading water in a vast sea called employment that’s not designed for us.”

youth participant

Youth with disabilities are resilient and determined

Many participants observed that youth with disabilities are hardworking, resilient, and determined. These youth face multiple barriers, including those compounded by other identity factors such as their gender or age, and still show the will to succeed. They just need to be given opportunities.

Youth with disabilities are willing and capable employees

Participants in the service provider and employer roundtables spoke about youth with disabilities being engaged employees that can thrive when provided with the necessary supports. These supports often come in the form of straightforward measures (for example, flexible schedules, assistive software, internet sticks, etc.). In the employer roundtable, several participants commented that employees with disabilities offer strong employee retention. This is an important factor in a tight labour market where many employers are struggling to find and retain employees.

Barriers are unique to each individual

Youth with disabilities are not a homogenous group and each individual has different requirements. In the youth roundtable, participants recommended that any accommodations or accessibility efforts should be flexible and responsive to the unique requirements of each person. This is especially important when other potential barriers to employment (for example, prior work experience, gender, level of education, etc.) are considered. They advised that one-size-fits-all approaches don’t work — supporting youth with disabilities requires personalized accommodations.

Employers need help to build knowledge on how to create inclusive workplaces

For employers, it can often be challenging to know where to start and what to do. While resources exist to support employers in fostering an inclusive work environment for employees with disabilities, these are sometimes hard to find. Often, the resources still need to be tailored to employers’ workplaces. This is especially an issue for small- and medium-sized enterprises. Many of these enterprises don’t have human resources departments or knowledge about accommodations that enable youth with disabilities. This type of knowledge, especially learning from other business owners, is vital to success in hiring and retaining youth with disabilities.

Transportation is a significant and persistent barrier

Participants from all 3 stakeholder groups cited transportation as one of the most significant barriers to employment for youth with disabilities, especially those from rural areas with limited or no public transit available.

Benefits can prevent youth with disabilities from pursuing skills training and employment opportunities

Some support programs for persons with disabilities (for example, provincial, or territorial income support programs, etc.) have income limits, which disincentivize paid employment for individuals receiving these benefits.

Individuality is often overlooked

Often, skills training and employment programming limit youth with disabilities, which can box them into “typical” careers and skillsets for persons with disabilities. Participants in the service provider and youth roundtables mentioned that this can be a disincentive for youth participating in employment and skills programming participation.

Remote work and digital innovation have changed the employment landscape

The uptake of remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been beneficial for youth with disabilities seeking employment, especially those in rural and remote areas, although gaps remain around adequate access to high-speed internet. It has also highlighted the need for youth with disabilities to have access to technology to find work and compete in the digital economy.

Gaps in supports

“When persons with disabilities lead, we get information that someone without a disability may not know (to tell us).”

youth participant

Importance of early skills and employment training in school

Some participants at the service provider roundtable noted that, too often, youth with disabilities are overlooked for early skills training and employment experiences. This is often because of inequity in primary and secondary schools for youth with disabilities compared to their peers around developing the skills needed for work.

Support tailored to the lived experience of youth with disabilities

Several participants at the youth roundtable mentioned that supports which encompass the lived experience of persons with disabilities were beneficial to them. This can include strengths-based approaches, which develop supports based on the abilities of the individual being served. In addition, coaching, mentoring, or training delivered by a person with a disability provides an opportunity to learn from someone who has a lived experience. This can support youth with disabilities navigate the workplace.

Mental health supports a key to success

Navigating complicated skills training and employment opportunities can have a negative impact on the mental health of youth with disabilities. Several participants, at both the youth and service provider roundtables, mentioned that providing access to mental health supports was a key to success. This is especially important when the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of young people is considered.

Employers need to be supported in creating inclusive, flexible workplaces

Employers need support (for example, education, coaching, information from other business owners, etc.) to create an inclusive workplace culture. There is a need to educate employers on working with persons with disabilities. There is also a need to provide leadership roles for persons with disabilities, and to change attitudinal barriers. At the employer roundtable, several participants noted they would appreciate ongoing support in ensuring an inclusive and accessible workplace. Coaching, employer forums and conferences were mentioned as being helpful to share information and best practices.

Employer information sources are needed

Information on the funding programs and resources that can help employers hire and retain youth with disabilities is often hard to find, according to roundtable participants. Service providers, which are often the conduit between youth with disabilities seeking employment and the employers who are seeking to hire them, play a key role in this process. Employers mentioned that an online tool that would equip them with the means and information they need to hire youth with disabilities, and foster an inclusive and accommodating work environment, would be useful.

Program enhancements

“One of the biggest challenges is not having accessibility be part of the process from the ground up.”

youth participant

Wrap-around supports and a broader skills lens are needed

At all the roundtables, participants spoke about the need to provide a range of wrap-around supports to youth with disabilities. These are specific to the individual, but programming should allow for the flexibility to fund different interventions that will support each individual in their skills and employment journey. Programs should include information on how to disclose a disability, basic soft skills, and how to ask for accommodations and navigate the workplace.

Providing flexibility in programming is vital

When programs provide the most flexibility, they are likely to be embraced by stakeholders. Often, participating means following rigid procedures, and this may not account for the unique and intersecting barriers that youth with disabilities face. Time limits (for example, having to finish a skills training program in a specific amount of time, not allowing part-time work) were noted as a specific area that would benefit from increased flexibility. Increased flexibility to provide a range of supports (for example, allowing for funding to be used in a way that would most benefit the program participant) was also noted.

Support should prioritize engaged employers

Support to employers (for example, wage subsidies) should prioritize employers that are hiring youth with disabilities. This should include a documented plan to provide youth with valuable opportunities to develop skills and gain work experiences. Having formal diversity and inclusion policies and training indicates real commitment from employers. Too often, some participants at the employer roundtable noted, employers enroll in these programs due to the financial support and don’t provide youth with disabilities a valuable experience.

Wage subsidies are well received but aren’t always enough

Several participants in the service provider roundtable mentioned that the employers they work with are often very receptive to wage subsidies. This gives youth with disabilities their first work experience. While participants in the employer roundtable echoed the importance of this, they also expressed the desire to have more support provided to them in creating an inclusive and accessible work environment beyond the wage subsidy.


The 5 engagement sessions allowed the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy to hear directly from various stakeholders on the barriers to employment for youth with disabilities and possible solutions. These findings will inform improving YESS supports for youth with disabilities. The findings will also inform future program design and policy direction.


Service providers

  • Canadian National Institute for the Blind
  • Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work
  • Skills Canada – Nova Scotia
  • British Columbia Aboriginal Network on Disability Society
  • March of Dimes Canada
  • Centre Des Services A L'Emploi Prescott-Russell Inc
  • BGC Canada
  • Gateway Association
  • John Howard Society of New Brunswick, Fundy Region
  • Inclusion Canada
  • Avalon Employment
  • Agence Ometz
  • Yukon University
  • Inclusion Yukon


  • Royal Bank of Canada
  • EY Canada
  • National Educational Association of Disabled Students
  • The Artery Community Roasters
  • Rise
  • Spinal Cord Injury Canada
  • Milk Jar Candle Company

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