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Clients.jpg Immigrants and refugees with disabilities struggle with a number of key barriers common to all immigrants settling in Ontario. Immigrants and refugees with disabilities experience additional set of barriers as people with disabilities, such as access to services, labour market integration, access to education, health, housing, stigma and self-advocacy.

Quick Facts

Concepts, Skills & Terminology

Discover important concepts, definitions and terms relating to serving persons with disabilities communities in the settlement sector.


Persons with disabilities include “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments [by illness, injury or wounds] which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCDP), 2006

  • Attitudinal Barriers – Attitudes that discriminate against people with disabilities.
Example: Thinking that people with disabilities are inferior
  • Information or Communication Barriers – Occur when a person cannot easily understand information.
Example: Print is too small to read
  • Technology Barriers – Occur when a technology cannot be modified to support various assistive devices.
Example: Website that do not support screen-reading software.
  • Organizational Barriers – An organization’s policies, practices or procedures that discriminate against people with disabilities.
Example: A hiring process that is not open to people with disabilities.
  • Architectural and Physical Barriers – Features of buildings or spaces that cause problems for people with disabilities.
Example: Hallways and doorways that are too narrow for a person using a wheelchair, electric scooter or walker.

Ministry of Community and Social Services


  • Visual Disabilities – Visual disabilities reduce a person’s ability to see clearly.
  • Hearing Loss – People who have hearing loss may be deaf, deafened or hard of hearing.
  • Deaf-Blind – A person who is deaf-blind has a combined loss of vision and hearing
  • Physical Disabilities – There are many types and degrees of physical disabilities. Not all physical disabilities require a wheelchair, it may be difficult to identify a person with a disability.
  • Speech or Language Disabilities – Some people have problems communicating, they may find it hard to pronounce words, speak without slurring or stuttering, or express themselves clearly through speech or writing.
  • Mental Health Disabilities – Mental health disabilities are not as visible as many other types of disabilities. Some people with mental health disabilities may have hallucinations, difficulty concentrating or remembering, and acute mood swings.
  • Learning Disabilities – Learning disabilities are information processing disorders. They can affect how a person acquires, organizes, expresses, retains, understands or uses verbal or non-verbal information.
  • Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities – An intellectual or developmental disability is a life-long condition which interferes with a person’s ability to lern at the same pace or to the same extent as those without this disability. Individuals may have difficulty understanding abstract concepts or adapting to some of the demands of daily life.

To better understand each type of disability, obtain tips on how to interact with people with each disability, as well as the appropriate words to use, go to Ministry of Community and Social Services

The Experiences of Newcomers with Disabilities Who Use Settlement Services

The Welcoming and Inclusive Communities: Accessibility Project found that newcomers with disabilities experience additional barriers as people with disabilities, for example:

  • Challenges in the interaction with settlement workers, due to a lack of understanding of disability issues in general and a lack of capacity, and resources to service them.
  • A lack of disability-related accommodations in ESL classes, and unavailability of American Sign Language (ASL)in their local communities
  • Newcomers with disabilities are sometimes turned away from temporary housing created to service refugees because the welcoming centre or shelters are inaccessible.
  • Newcomers tend to understate their needs for fear of exclusion or deportation.
  • Barriers to Accessible Settlement Services Reported by Settlement Workers

The settlement workers that attended the research focus groups and participated in the one-on-one interviews and filled out the online survey were eager to share and learn new information on how to better service newcomers with disabilities. Main challenges identified by this group were:

  • Serving newcomers with disabilities takes, on average 5 or 6 times more times than serving other newcomers.
  • There is a lack of information on available services for people with disabilities.
  • Lack of dedicated funds at settlement agencies to work with clients with disabilities.
  • Physical inaccessibility of newcomer welcome centres and settlement agencies.
  • There are not enough partnerships between disability organizations and settlement organizations


Inclusive Communication and Practice can be achieved by:

  • Using plain language when speaking
  • Ensuring that information is accessible
  • Communicating with newcomers with disabilities on the phone in the following manner:
  • Speak normally, clearly and directly
  • Don't worry about how their voice sounds. Concentrate on what is being said.
  • Be patient, don't interrupt and don't finish their sentences. Give them time to explain themselves.
  • Don't try to guess what they are saying. If you don't understand, don't pretend; ask again or repeat or rephrase what you've heard.
  • If a client on the phone is using an interpreter or a TTY line, speak normally, and speak to the client, not to the interpreter.
  • If your client has great difficulty communicating, ask them if they prefer another form of communication or if they would like to call back when it is convenient. Ontario Community Support Association, 2009

Recommendations for making information accessible are described at [ Ryerson University - The Access Centre]
Some of the best practices in providing services to persons with disabilities include:

  • Accommodating by moving classes around to meet their needs (i.e., LINC classes on main floor to avoid stairs)
  • Agency brochures are provided in alternate format and copies of cross-disability/new immigrant magazines that profile success stories are kept in the lobby of the centre for people to read while they wait.
  • Settlement services and resources are offered in American Sign Language.
  • Accessible venues for community events.
  • Obtain funding to create resources in ASL (for example videos)
  • Partnerships with other organizations in order to overcome accessibility challenges. For example, in one agency, the building is not physically accessible. The agency partnered with the local library in order to be able to meet with clients with mobility disabilities in an accessible space close by.
  • To treat persons with disabilities like everyone else and not make them feel different.
  • Sharing information with family members and other workers.
  • Connecting with doctors and clinics in the area, as this is often the first point of contact for newcomers
  • Network with disability organizations
  • Having a settlement worker that specializes in clients with disability
  • Invite outside agencies to provide workshops to build capacity - March of Dimes, Community Living Toronto

Welcoming and Inclusive Communities: Accessibility Project

How to Learn More

40px-Crystal package settings.png Featured Resource! Accessibility Program - Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) and the Ethno-Racial People with Disabilities Coalition of Ontario (ERDCO)

Further your knowledge with practical guides, best practices, projects and research. Find out how to become qualified to work in the field through online or classroom-based training.

Best Practices/Practical Guides

The ODSP Guided Self Help Program is meant to provide help to clients who are appealing an earlier ODSP decision. The materials consist of a video describing the hearing process and a guide to getting ready for the hearing.


  • Accessibility Program - Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) and the Ethno-Racial People with Disabilities Coalition of Ontario (ERDCO)
Interactive one day workshop on how to provide accessible and inclusive support to newcomers with disabilities
Online, self-directed training for those providing direct service to women with disabilities and Deaf women who may disclose a history of physical or sexual violence or criminal harassment.
Individual and in-house group training for staff from immigrant service agencies whose positions are funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration (MCI)

Online Learning

Related Projects/Initiatives

Further Reading

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