Guest Post: Alyson Seale, A Strong Business Case for Inclusive Workplaces

A Strong Business Case for Inclusive Workplaces – Disability Employment Awareness Month

Inclusion is an issue of social justice and is also a case for business. One out of every five Canadians have disabilities. This group of 7.4 million people with disabilities is one of the largest minorities we have in Canada. Unfortunately, only 49% of working age people with disabilities are employed compared to 79% of their non-disabled peers. Legally an employer is not allowed to discriminate based on disability but it happens regularly. October is Disability Employment Awareness Month so let us look at why one of Canada’s largest minority groups is so significantly underrepresented in the workforce.

When we refer to disability, we are referring to people whose bodies and minds fall outside of the range we as a society have arbitrarily deemed as normal. Disability is not the variation of human existence, but rather the experience at the intersection of the variation and an environment that was not built with this sector of our population in mind. Disability means navigating a world that consistently reminds us we do not fit.

Mark Wafer is a business owner in Toronto who has been hiring people with disabilities (PWD) at every level of his franchises for many years. Not because he has a soft heart or because he is a social justice warrior; he understands that hiring people with disabilities is good business. Wafer travels sharing his experiences and the research that shows how people with disabilities have improved his bottom line, and how so many businesses are missing out on this educated, innovative, and untapped market of potential employees.

Three of the most common concerns I hear from employers when considering employing people with disabilities is the cost of accommodations, absenteeism, and safety. In reality, less than 10% of all accommodations cost more than $100 which is hardly a hardship. In fact, most accommodations can easily be provided for free with a bit of innovation, creativity, and flexibility. If companies asked PWD where they thought accommodations might be needed and how to implement, many PWD would share solutions that have worked in the past, circumventing the need to recreate the wheel.

Wafer discusses in his 2002 White Paper that his experience with absenteeism among his employees with disabilities reflected the research that hiring people with disabilities can lower absenteeism up to 86%. In 2011, Wafer employed 43 PWD of his 250 employees. That year his employees with disabilities took holidays and time off for appointments but none of them took a sick day in that 12-month period. He marks it up to the pride they take in their work and how difficult it is to find employers that are willing to take a chance on them. Interestingly enough, this also improved the absenteeism of the other employees as well, lowering Wafer’s business costs. People with disabilities tend to have longer tenure at their place of employment, positively increasing the bottom line and decreasing the cost of turnover.

In Wafer’s experience, PWD don’t tend to be big risk takers. Typically, they like to follow rules and tend to follow policy and safety procedures more closely rather than less. Again, this has a positive impact on other employees as well. This has also been my experience working in pre-employment with PWD. Of course there will be exceptions just as there is in the non-disabled population.

PWD often have not been afforded the same education and employment experience as their non-disabled peers, putting them behind before they get to the employment starting line. The biggest hurdles they face are lack of opportunity, low expectations, and misconceptions by employers, fellow employees and customers.

Employers seem to be missing the larger picture. This large population of Canadians with disabilities are also consumers and so are their friends and families. People come to Wafer’s businesses because he is known to be an inclusive employer. When people see the opportunities that all of his employees’ experience and how they are treated, they want to be part of it. He rarely has to advertise for employees and people come from across town to spend money at his business.

This past year has seen the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Royal Assent of the Accessible Canada Act (ACA). The goal of the ACA is to make universal inclusion of PWD in Canadian Society. Employment has a strong focus in each of these documents. Legislation is one opportunity to raise awareness and raise the employment statistics for people with disabilities. However, the business model appeals to employers’ business sense rather than their need for compliance to law. The business case helps to disband misconceptions, put employees with disabilities in a more positive light, and put more money in the employers’ pockets.

Alyson Seale
Associate Professor, TASK program
Upgrading and University Preparation