The largest minority population in Canada is still the most underemployed. What is creating this barrier to workforce representation?

The disabled population is not seen as the talent pool of skilled workers that it really is. Statistics Canada’s 2014 report on “Persons with Disabilities and Employment” revealed that fewer than half of Canadians (49%) aged 25 to 64 with disabilities had a job, compared to 79% without a disability. Although education helped break down barriers, with employment rates almost the same for those with and without a disability, employed graduates with a disability earned less than those without and were less likely to hold management positions. People with disabilities want to work, but society makes it difficult for them. With a growing skills shortfall and a population that isn’t growing fast enough to fill it, employers will have to look to other, untapped resources.

The importance of employment cannot be underestimated. Being an employee, colleague. or contributor is a key social role that depends on being in the workforce with equitable wages. With those criteria in place, barriers can be removed to enable people with disabilities to be true citizens of the world and actively included in society. Although legislation exists to break down the barriers to employment, there are still a number of objections to hiring people with disabilities.

Objection: Not having the accommodation

A study conducted by the U.S. Job Accommodation Network found that, contrary to popular misconceptions, 59% of people hired required no additional costs for accommodation needs. Of those who did, the typical one-time expenditure by employers was $500. Employers are also encouraged to think about accessibility features early on, so that retrofitting or rebuilding is not required later. Natural supports can also be utilized. These resources are already available or can easily be offered to facilitate successful completion of the tasks required. Other factors to consider include training and offering flexible working hours. Being mindful of workplace accommodation for all staff can help to improve overall employee retention.

Objection: Requires specific expertise

Everyone is an individual, so often employers just need to ask what someone may need rather than automatically assuming complexity. The person may have access to employment support and may simply need the same support as any other employee; that is, a clear job description with roles and responsibilities, defined expectations of expected performance, and consistent meaningful feedback.

Objection: Requires extensive job modifications

Although job modifications may be necessary for some tasks, they are often not required at all. A colleague in a wheelchair may be unable to physically file documents, but they could be more than capable of filing electronic ones. Often the limitations we put on others are purely in our own minds. Job carving is another option. It involves taking administrative tasks from other roles to create a separate position. This frees up the time of other staff members to focus on more strategic initiatives while creating a new opportunity for someone else.

Objection: Entry-level skills only 

About 795,000 working-age Canadians are not employed, but have disabilities that don’t prevent them from working. Almost half (340,000) have post-secondary education. Although educational institutions are striving to be inclusive and to integrate the classroom as much as possible, the workplace is struggling to catch up. Precluding people with disabilities from anything but menial jobs perpetuates the false concept that this is all they are capable of and should expect.

Objection: It’s too risky

Every hire requires a leap of faith that the new employee will be able to perform in the role. It’s the same regardless of whether or not the new employee has a disability, and it’s why a probationary period exists.

Objection: Managing performance leads to discrimination accusations

If someone is underperforming, the same processes that apply to any employee to improve performance can be implemented, including termination if necessary. Hiring someone with a disability does not mean affording them a “pass” on poor performance. In fact, it would be discriminatory to hold them to a lesser standard than anyone else.

Objection: Hiring focused only on specific disabilities

Not all disabilities are considered equal when it comes to employment. People with intellectual disabilities or mental health issues are the least represented in the workforce. The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that, depending on the severity of the mental health concern, 70 to 90% are unemployed. This polarization may create factions in the disability movement, as an employment opportunity for one may be considered a loss for another. Another impact is called “creaming,” which means selecting “the cream of the crop” to ensure they get placed while leaving others who are deemed unemployable on the sidelines. This ensures that the negative cycle continues.

Objection: No business benefits

Although employers may feel compelled for altruistic reasons to hire people with disabilities, it also makes good business sense:

  • Lower absenteeism and accidents
    Many studies show that people with disabilities take fewer absence days and are more aware and conscientious of safety in the workplace because of their disabilities.
  • Reduction in turnover
    Hiring people with mental health and/or physical disabilities can reduce turnover, as those people and their colleagues feel a greater loyalty to the company.
  • Accessing a new consumer base
    Close to 40 million Canadians and Americans self-identify as having a disability. With an aging population, that number that will continue to grow. If you factor in their family and friends, the opportunity for new customers, donors, and supporters is massive. Businesses need to be able to market effectively to this group. To do so, they need to recognize and truly understand the needs of people with disabilities. Who better to help gain that competitive advantage than the employee that is your target customer? For example, an NHL team found a growing level of community support from ticket-holders who use a wheelchair as they are now escorted to optimal viewing spots by ushers who also use them.
  • Competitive edge
    With a rising global demand for talent, excluding this ever-growing, eager population could be a costly business mistake. People with disabilities have extensive skill sets and substantial contributions to make.

Over to you

Employers are starting to realize that an inclusive environment and diverse teams are better for business. However, a job in itself is not enough. There has to be an emphasis on customized employment that matches the interests of the company with those of the individual.

It is clear that hiring people with disabilities is not a charitable act but makes good business sense. People want to work, so creating opportunities for them will break down the misconceptions of what that entails, and will strengthen our economy and foster a stronger sense of community. Isn’t it time we focused on ability rather than disability?

It’s time for Canadian businesses to step up to the challenge of employing more people with disabilities.

About Catherine Gordon

Catherine leads initiatives to ensure that our client, the David Suzuki Foundation, has the people and roles it needs to achieve its goals. Their employees are highly motivated, talented and professional individuals who deserve the organization’s support to thrive. Catherine works to articulate that support through a talent-management strategy that is aligned with the organization’s long-term direction.

Originally from Northern Ireland, Catherine moved to London, U.K., after graduation and then to Vancouver in 2005. She has worked in an HR capacity in numerous sectors and organizations throughout her career, which has included law firms, charity, technology and a regulatory body before joining the David Suzuki Foundation. She is a lifelong learner and currently holds the CHRP designation, a Strategic HR Practices certificate from Cornell University, a Certificate from Queens University on Leading a Mentally Healthy Workplace, is a Certified Prepare Training Instructor and has completed a Leadership and Inclusion Certificate through Centennial College.

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