In November 2010 the Toronto Star reported that the newly revamped Canadian citizenship test had led to an unusually high failure rate. Using the generally, although not universally, accepted understanding of citizenship as a set of civil, political and social rights and responsibilities the more meaningful test is how, or whether, we can exercise our citizenship. Closer examination reveals a deeply rooted connection between the ability to exercise social citizenship and participation in waged labor. Denied access to waged labor, as people with disabilities systematically are, undermines a person's identity as an active citizen and his or her ability to exercise social citizenship. A recalibration of the values associated with waged labor namely, independence, self-reliance and productivity would extend worth and identity to those systemically deprived of both, produce allies amongst historically disadvantaged groups, and benefit broader segments of society many of who grow disenchanted with the current distribution of wealth and power.

In November 2010, the Toronto Star (Beeby, 2010) reported that the newly revamped Canadian citizenship test had led to an unusually high failure rate among applicants. A sample test was also printed revealing that the focus was on Canadian culture, history and politics from a dominant, white, able-bodied perspective that assumes a particular experience of Canadian society that is far from universal. Not surprisingly, there were no questions about the history of the disability movement, eugenics or the institutionalization of people with disabilities.

More interesting however is that such a test for citizenship exists. What does (or should) citizenship mean? Surely it means more than knowing the correct number of provinces and territories, or the date of Confederation? Ironically, these are facts that many naturalized Canadians cannot answer with ease. We may gain our citizenship by the accident of our birth or by passing an exam, but the salient test is how we exercise our citizenship, or whether we are able to exercise our citizenship at all.

There is no clear consensus as to the theoretical understanding of citizenship, but there are common elements among the various definitions. Generally, citizenship is understood to be a set of civil, political and social rights and responsibilities (Prince, 2009; Rioux, 2002). While this definition is not universal, it addresses the main attributes associated with the term 'citizen' and it is a platform from which we can focus specifically on 'social citizenship'.

Closer examination will reveal a deeply rooted connection between the ability to exercise social citizenship and participation in waged labor. Waged labor is an essential component of Western capitalist societies and a benchmark from which the dominant majority measures identity, worthiness and individual value (Prince, 2009). If a person with disabilities is systematically denied access to waged labour, it may lead to perceptions of him or her as a 'burden' to society. When the dominant society determines value based on the individual's contributions to the production of goods, it undermines a person's identity as an active citizen (Chouinard & Crooks, 2005; Rioux, 2002; Taylor, 2004). Compartmentalizing persons with disabilities and regarding them as a 'burden', based on a set of production expectations, gives society little incentive to reshape itself, or infact for citizens to be inclusive to these individuals. This circular oppression has the effect of ensuring that people with disabilities are given few opportunities to enact meaningful change to the conditions of their citizenship. A person with a disability may pass the citizenship test (assuming it was provided in an accessible format) but they would be citizens in name only.

By drawing on concepts of hegemony, the precariat and Russell's (2002) arguments concerning the "reserve army of labor" I will argue that people with disabilities are routinely denied access to waged labor and consequently access to social citizenship. An examination of the Toronto Transit Commission's Wheel Trans, a form of public transportation for people with disabilities, is a case that illustrates this point. In addition, I argue that waged labor is conceptualized to value only those workers who are characterized as independent, self-reliant, and able to meet standards of productivity. Given the close connection between citizenship and waged labor, these characteristics are then attributed to the 'valuable' citizen. Examining this conceptualization from a critical disability perspective allows an opportunity for recalibration; and in so doing includes and supports people with disabilities as they exercise their social citizenship, whether or not there is engagement in waged labor. Such inclusion will ensure a voice in social citizenship with a view, and opportunity, to challenge the discourse of who, and what is valued in society. In addition, it may produce allies amongst historically disadvantaged groups and benefit a broader sector of society, many of whom are growing disenchanted with the current distribution of wealth and power.

It is important to define the underlying tension and distinction between impairment and disability, for it is the latter that is of importance in this discussion. As Gleeson (1999) explains, "Impairment thus is simply a bodily state, characterized by the absence or altered physiology, which defines the physicality of certain people" (p.52). This is to be distinguished from disability, which is conceptualized as, "what may become of impairment as each society produces itself socio-spatially" (emphasis in the original, Gleeson, p.53). The impairment is not the limitation to citizenship but rather the transformation of impairment to disability with the latter being the limiter. Western societies, through adherence to the capitalist market generally, and neoliberalism specifically, construct, facilitate, and support the transformation from impairment to disability through shared social norms, and reinforce it in a manner that shifts the focus from the broader societal barriers to the individual embodiment of impairment as the cause (Prince, 2009). The social model of disability seeks to challenge this transformation by reinterpreting the role of individual citizens as being neither the sole reason for success in the capitalist society nor the cause of disenfranchisement (Barton, 1993).

Understanding Citizenship

While there does not appear to be a definition of citizenship that captures all the nuances, many (Barton 1993; Prince, 2009; Rioux 2002; Valentine & Vickers, 1996) rely on, the definition provided by British sociologist T. H. Marshall as a starting point. Marshall was informed by social class concerns (Barton, 1993) and understood citizenship to consist of three prongs; civil, political and social. Explaining social citizenship, Marshall (1998) writes:

By the social element I mean the whole range from the right to a modicum of economic welfare and security to the right to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society. The institutions most closely connected with it are the education system and the social services (page 94).

Marshall's definition is not entirely satisfactory. In particular, the timeline that accompanies his definition, wherein he charts the progression of the acquisition of citizenship is accurate only insofar as it pertains to white non-disabled males (Valentine & Vickers, 1996). In addition, the Marshall definition fails to articulate or consider rights that are important to equity-seeking groups in the attainment of full citizenship, but which would not be important (or necessary) to those in mainstream society (Valentine & Vickers, 1996). For example, there is a failure to articulate the social supports that are necessary for people with disabilities to access full citizenship. Being afforded citizenship is a privilege that, once extended, comes with a set of rights. For those rights to have meaning, however, there must be opportunities to participate in, or exercise, those rights (Rioux, 2002). Acknowledging a set of rights, but failing to identify the physical, institutional and attitudinal barriers in the exercise of those rights, renders them nonexistent and contributes to a withdrawal of the citizenship status. The issue then becomes whether citizenship is extended to people with disabilities in more than name only.

According to Barton (1993), an essential element of citizenship is that the active citizen is "the employed individual who, whilst committed to the pursuit of economic well-being, seeks to do good to others, but purely in a private capacity" (p. 244). This belief perpetuates the notion that we are not reliant upon each other but rather that we live independent lives, perhaps offering assistance to others we deem meritorious, but never seeking or receiving assistance ourselves. The meritorious recipient is also referred to as "deserving" and is a key component of the charitable model of disability (Prince, 2009). In this view of disability, the person with a disability is one to be pitied and there is a sense that the impairment is tragic and the resulting disability, a misfortune (in this model there is no distinction between the two). Supports, usually in the form of income support, but other assistance as well, are offered out of a feeling of pity (Chouinard & Crooks, 2005). Through the act of providing and receiving assistance, there is an assumption that overall capacity of the recipient is diminished. Rioux (2002) argues that it then becomes a prerequisite for people with disabilities to demonstrate the capacity to exercise the right before entitlement and that there is an exchange of supports or charity for rights (Prince, 2009).

Social Citizenship and the Values Afforded Waged Employment

It is Marshall's concept of social citizenship, particularly as it relates to participation in waged employment that is of interest to people with disabilities in the attainment of full citizenship which, as Valentine and Vickers (1996) argue, has not been fully achieved.

Prince (2009) further distinguishes social citizenship to emphasize the economic element of citizenship and, more precisely, the importance of participation in waged labor. Standing (2011) describes economic citizenship as the "equal entitlement to undertake income earning activity" (p. 14; see also Prince, 2002 for a similar distinction), but there continues to be a failure to recognize that equal entitlement to a right must also include equal capacity to participate. Standing, along with other disability scholars (Barnes, 2003; Barnes & Mercer, 2005; Rioux, 2002) notes that the entrenchment of neoliberal ideology along with the "market-orientated conception of individual belonging and contributing" (Prince, 2002, p.23) are reasons why the realization of social citizenship has not been a reality for people with disabilities.

Taylor (2004) argues that "capitalist development has advantaged certain biological forms of embodiment" there are important historical examples both pre- and post-industrialization which demonstrate that favoring the able body is not an inevitable outcome. Pre-industrialization saw people with impairments working within the family system, each playing a part within personal capacity, to meet the survival needs of the family (Abberley, 2002). The Industrial Revolution saw the transformation of work from the home or agrarian communities to factories, waged labor, and the rise of capitalism. Gleeson (1999) argues that the transition from feudalism to capitalism rendered people with impairments as unproductive members of both the family and society, since they were unable to obtain waged employment. If the transformation is contextualized within Roseberry's (1989), definition of hegemony:

…a complex set of ideas, meanings and associations, and a way of talking about or expressing those meanings and associations, which present an order of inequality and domination as if it were an order of equality and reciprocity, which give a product of history the appearance of natural order (p. 45)

This shift in thinking, particularly the understanding of productivity that only values the worker who is producing at a rate deemed socially acceptable, becomes the norm (Taylor, 2004).


Another transformation is the importance afforded the independent individual, which is also an essential component of capitalism's success but may be problematic for people with disabilities. Barnes (2003) argues that work has been formed around the maximization of profit (productivity) and competition between independent individual workers to benefit from that productivity. In the independent model, the individual does not rely on the state for his or her needs but rather engages in waged labor to resolve one's own needs. This is may not be compatible with the disabled worker who requires supports to participate in waged labor. Abberley summarizes British sociologist Eda Topliss' beliefs regarding an inevitable discrimination against people with disabilities, as follows:

Similarly the values that underpin society must be those which support the interests and activities of the majority, hence the emphasis on vigorous independence and competitive achievement, particularly in the occupational sphere, with the unfortunate spin-off that it encourages a stigmatizing and negative view of the disabilities which handicap individuals in these valued aspects of life. (p.125)

Favoring individual independence fails to recognize that everyone needs some assistance in daily life (Barnes 2003). The need for assistance can expand or contract depending on life circumstances including illness or aging; however, to ask for assistance, and to accept assistance, represents a failure of our responsibilities as citizens according to dominant perceptions of independence and value. Rioux (2002) argues that an expansion of social citizenship as a mechanism for entitlements, rather than just responsibilities, is strenuously opposed because it, "encourages citizens to take but not to give, to disengage from the labor force, and to be willing to live off of social assistance" (p. 221). In her article, "The Right Not to Work", Taylor (2004), a disabled artist, presents a different perspective on asking for assistance. She notes that the stigma of assistance lies with the person providing assistance rather than with the person receiving it. Viewing assistance from this perspective helps to explain some of the challenges faced by injured or aging workers who must confront this stigma and transition from provider to recipient. By acknowledging the shared labor of both giving and receiving assistance, there an opportunity to establish the concept of work as a much broader and more inclusive construct.


Self-reliance, however, can be viewed from a slightly different perspective and as separate from independence. Self-reliance can be conceptualized as the ability to make choices in the way one lives or receives supports (Taylor, 2004) and, therefore, should not be overlooked or undervalued. The rise of the Independent Living Movement which focuses on "achieving deinstitutionalized service delivery and skills development" (Valentine & Vickers, 1996 p.165) that are controlled and determined by the person with a disability, is recognition that the need for support does not render a person incapable of determining what that support should be or how it should be carried out (Barnes & Mercer, 2005; Stienstra, 2002). Unfortunately, the inability to meet certain standards of self-reliance, even if constructed and reinforced by the very society that insists upon them, has the effect of closing off discussions as to how social citizenship can be reshaped to be meaningful and inclusive of people with disabilities.

Such a discussion would also reveal that living with impairment requires a set of skills and attributes that include independence and self-reliance, just manifested in a different form. Barnes (2003) and Barnes and Mercer (2005) refer to the skills of living with impairment as illness management, which acknowledges that tasks of looking after oneself in the context of impairment require more effort and subsequent labor. Medication management, doctors and physiotherapists' appointments, and coordinating and managing support are some of the tasks that constitute this labor. Managing support, in particular, ascribes the role of employer to people with disabilities who may engage with several support or care workers throughout the day or week, but the importance and labor of this role are not acknowledged or valued (Taylor, 2004). There is also everyday work in maintaining a household (either with or without a family) that requires labor, a position favored by the feminist movement, who have long argued that private sphere labor must be equally valued alongside public sphere labor. Lastly, biographical work refers to the effort required to understand, interpret and make sense of disability as it pertains to the person and to the community they inhabit (Barnes & Mercer, 2005). A willingness to understand that different lives require different, but equally important skills would challenge the current thinking about independence and self-reliance and by extension capacity.


Productivity is a key element of industrial and post-industrial societies. As a general concept, it has been manipulated to mean only engagement in waged labor and, like independence and self-reliance, there is little or no room to re-imagine or strengthen these concepts to be more inclusive.

The Industrial Revolution saw dramatic changes not only in the way individuals work, but also in the reason for the work. Rather than working directly for food or subsistence, labor was a commodity with wages the result. The workplace itself, particularly the newly conceptualized assembly line, was designed to suit the male worker without disabilities, and the work discipline was speed and effectiveness of movement (Valentine & Vickers, 1996). Workplaces were studied to maximize efficiencies in order to ensure minimum production cost (not accounting for human cost) and maximum profits (Standing, 2011). The impaired body became the disabled body when the work was required to be performed a certain way, at a certain rate with no modification.

Recent historic examples indicate that there are opportunities to readjust thinking about productivity in order to meet particular, specific demands. During World War II as men without disabilities were enlisted to fight overseas, those who were traditionally denied access to waged labor (women and persons with disabilities) were recruited to work in factories (Barnes, 2003). This indicates that priorities in the work force are subject to change and that work, as a social creation, is capable of adaptation (Barnes, 2003).

The Precariat and Globalization

Beginning in the latter part of the 20th century, the organization of work changed once again to respond to the demands of globalization. Standing (2011) articulates key characteristics of this changing workplace. First, workplace changes are predicated on the steadfast belief that growth and development depends on market competitiveness. To be competitive, there must be labor flexibility with the ability to raise and lower employment in order to remain competitive within the increasingly global market. Second, workers must be flexible in the type of work they do and be willing to adjust their skills as required. Without flexibility the now global company would, it is argued, move to more favorable markets where labor is cheaper. Standing (2011) argues that the disabled worker is left out or pushed to the margins of this new class of workers (the precariat) and is unable to thrive in this new kind of flexible workplace. The necessary supports required to include a person with a disability are not a welcome addition as they would not allow for the flexibility deemed necessary to be competitive, or profitable, in the global economy (Barnes, 2003). Hall and Wilton (2011) believe that this new workplace is in and of itself disabling in its precariousness, flexible work patterns, long hours and increased productivity. As Abberley (2002) suggests, for the less skilled worker, "stable employment looks bleak" (p. 131). The lack of stable employment for those not traditionally excluded from the labor market may prove to be a catalyst for unification with people with disabilities, and change either the value placed on waged labor or broaden conceptions of labor.

Stienstra (2002) argues that "globalization has resulted in shifts towards a global enterprise capitalism and a "hyper liberal" world order, away from welfare states, and towards a generic culture with an ideology of possessive individualism" (p. 112-113). This hegemonic ideology of independence and self-reliance, Roulstone (2002) acknowledges, has not been beneficial to people with disabilities and has been more, rather than less, disabling. In addition, more locally there has been no realization that globalization excludes people with disabilities, and yet there continues to be a policy limitation on social assistance in favour of employment supports (Prince, 2009). Russell (2002) suggests, however, that full employment, of persons with or without disability, is also not the objective of the capitalist economy since a connection has been made between inflation and low unemployment rates. As states near full employment the interest rate increases, which slows the economy and halts inflation. This results in layoffs. A large reserve of people ready and willing to work keeps wages down and people willing to work harder in order to keep their positions (Russell, 2002); however, as technology advances, the reserve labor pool waiting in the proverbial wings, is also excluded from the global labor market (Stienstra, 2002). People with disabilities, who require supports, do not fair well in the labor reserve or in the labor market, since they are not considered as 'productive' they are often the first to be laid off. Russell (2002) articulates the economists' calculation in retaining the disabled worker by stating that, "expenses to accommodate 'disabled' persons in the workplace will be resisted as an addition to the fixed capital portion of constant capital" (p.128).

Illuminating the Reality: The Case of Wheel Trans

Despite the negative impact of globalization on the population generally, and people with disabilities specifically, there is a push for employment for people with disabilities. However in order to realize the goals of independence and self-reliance required for employment other necessary supports must be available and are sometimes not. A review of the reservation policies for Wheel Trans, the accessible public transit for people with disabilities in Toronto, helps to illustrate this point.

Wheel Trans, operated by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), provides accessible transportation services to those with mobility issues who cannot access the regular system of buses, subways and streetcars (Toronto Transit Commission, n.d.). A review of the Wheel Trans website outlines three ways that a registered user can engage the Wheel Trans service. These options include advanced booking, pre-booking and same-day service. For advanced booking, registered users are instructed to call the day before, as early in the morning as possible, and to avoid requiring the service during morning or afternoon rush hours. Pre-booking allows riders to book service if they require the service at the same time each week for a minimum of four weeks. This service, the website advises, is not available on statutory holidays or for the two week period before Christmas and one week after Christmas, except for dialysis appointments. Finally, customers may try same-day or standby service but the Wheel Tran website acknowledges that preplanned use will likely be more successful given the volume of users requiring the service through out the day.

The use of this mode of transportation has significant limitations for people with mobility disabilities assuming, for the moment, that employment is consistent and stable. The new global economy dictates flexibility on a number of fronts, but the transportation system seems anything but flexible. Wheel Trans would not allow for a varied work schedule with any security in knowing that the worker with a disability could get there on time, if at all. It also restricts people with disabilities from accepting last minute job assignments or being flexible in meeting employers' requirements to change work schedules or locations. The result is an inflexible and unreliable worker who is likely to be consistently passed over in favor of the worker who can adapt to employers' needs easily and seamlessly. On one hand, employment is encouraged and seems to be a route out of marginalization and toward acquiring social citizenship as described earlier; but on the other hand, there is no recognition that new employment expectations of flexibility pose enormous barriers to participation. In the case of Wheel Trans, infrastructure has not kept pace with ideology and one could assume that the person with a disability has not adapted to society, rather than society not adapting to the needs of its citizens (Barton, 1993).

In summary, the goals of neoliberalism that are reflected in globalization of the labour market; value independence, self reliance, and productivity but are also at odds with policies that emphasize employment for people with disabilities above all other interests. The state (municipal, provincial and national levels) has not adapted, or coordinated the necessary supports to allow people with disabilities to meet the goals outlined above. As noted earlier, Prince (2009) argues that there is an emphasis on employment supports within the social assistance regime, which is controlled at the provincial level, as a way of reducing reliance on this system. While one level of government (provincial) is encouraging employment, the transportation system (controlled at the municipal level) is not equipped to accommodate the disabled worker, at least in the example of Wheeltrans provided. Stienstra (2002) suggests, the policies or services that are provided "valorize independence" (p. 116). Brodie (1996) asserts that the "the new citizen" (p.19) understands and agrees to a limited role for the state as provider and, in turn, welcomes the opportunity and responsibility to be self-reliant.


In 2006, the rate of paid employment for people with disabilities in Canada was 51% compared to the almost 75% of employed individuals with no disability (Hall & Wilton, 2011). This strongly suggests that the push for employment has not been entirely successful. While Hall and Wilton (2011) do not indicate whether these employment statistics refer to full- or part-time work, they do note that a substantial body of research demonstrates that employed persons with disability, "are less likely than non-disabled employees to work full-time, are more likely to work in unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled manual jobs, and to earn less." (p. 869)

The inability to conform to a labor market designed for a different embodiment is a significant reason for this 'un or under' employment but, in addition, for some individuals waged labor is simply not possible. This raises questions regarding alternatives. Must we surrender to the mounting pressures to conform to societal norms and as a result to suffer the consequences of marginalization and forfeiting of citizenship as a result?

One solution to this dilemma would be to address the value placed on waged labor. Most often, employment is used as a gauge for identity (Taylor, 2004). Taylor (2004) suggests an alternative to work as an identifier. She describes herself as an artist, but bristles at the question as to whether she lives off the profits of her work. She identifies the right not to have one's value based on participation in waged labor. As one participant in a British study on work and identity stated, "I don't really consider myself unemployed. Just unwaged" (Riach & Loretto, 2009 p.111). It is likely that there are others in the feminist movement and the older person community who would welcome a broadening of discussions on identity to be more inclusive. The former because unpaid domestic work, traditionally performed by women, is done outside the waged labor and in the private sphere, and the latter because of the identity loss experienced by having left waged labor. In the development of partnerships for this endevour different but complimentary vantage points will help to strengthen the position for a larger number of people.

As more of the population, not just those with disabilities, are left out of the globalized labor market there appears to be a shift in how identity is understood and assigned. Standing (2011) argues that the new globalized labor market precludes workers from gaining an identity from work as a direct result of the over emphasis on flexibility. If identity and work are disentangled, there is an opportunity to insert alternatives to how identity is assigned and understood. In doing so, people with disabilities could lead the discussion about the meaning of identity (including self worth and value), without resorting to a discussion of waged labor. As a result other interests, skills and attributes (unrelated to waged labor) become things of value.

The reaction to globalization, as evidenced in the recent Occupy Movement, is an indication that there is an appetite for rethinking our engagement with work and the distribution of wealth. This could benefit people with disabilities, as the recalibration of values regarding work could be expected to impact positively on the attainment of full citizenship. Working in tandem with the re-evaluation of waged labor, the attainment of meaningful citizenship could provide opportunities for an alternate discourse on issues of independence, self-reliance and productivity. A shift in thinking about these three issues may create opportunities for people with disabilities to take their place as fully contributing citizens who participate in policy making decisions regarding how society as a whole is organized and structured, not only as it benefits people with disabilities.

Thank you to The Law Foundation of Ontario for their generous support through the Community Leadership in Justice Fellowship which enabled me to be able to write this article. All of the opinions, error or omissions are my own and cannot be attributed to The Law Foundation.


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