Yazmine Laroche: It’s time for a culture shift where disability inclusion is concerned

Creating the right conditions for persons with disabilities in the workplace

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      By Yazmine Laroche

      As the pandemic lingers, Canadian employers are experiencing a human-resources crunch, now commonly referred to as “The Great Resignation”. Adequate staffing and training are a significant challenge for many employers.

      But this challenge also comes with an opportunity.

      As we are forced to reconceive many of our workplaces, we can do so with 21st-century vision. It’s time to embrace equity, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace—but that means disability inclusion too.

      Persons with disabilities are the largest untapped resourced in the Canadian labour market, too often forgotten in other diversity hiring campaigns.

      There is a 21 percent gap in employment rates between persons with disabilities aged 25 to 64 (59 percent) and those without disabilities (80 percent).  TD Economics projects that by decreasing this gap and hiring persons with disabilities, 450,000 net new jobs could be added to the Canadian economy, resulting in an increase of almost $50 billion to our GDP.

      A new $9 million-funded research team, Inclusive Design for Employment Access at McMaster University, recognizes the opportunity in this employment gap and promises to reimagine workplaces for persons with disabilities by building up employer capacity and confidence in hiring persons with disabilities. It’s the right approach.

      So why does the employment gap for persons with disabilities persist—even during a human resource crunch? A couple of pervasive myths refuse to die.

      First, employers frequently believe that hiring persons with disabilities would be costly due to necessary workplace accommodations. But a 2020 U.S. Job Accommodation Network survey laid that myth to rest. They found that 56 percent of employers reported no costs whatsoever for workplace accommodations for their employees with disabilities, while 39 percent reported a one-time median cost of a modest $500.

      No-cost accommodations included policies such as flexible schedules and workplaces, and modified duties.

      Which leads to the second pervasive myth, one that the pandemic has burst wide open: that flexible workplaces and schedules are not possible. 

      COVID-19 showed us that having employees working from home with flexible schedules is a viable alternative to an exclusively 9-to-5 office-based workforce for many (most) jobs.  Shuttered offices due to lockdowns and workers often juggling childcare and homeschooling with work duties made everyone more creative and adaptive by necessity.  We all rose to the challenge. 

      We can channel that flexible, agile work culture toward our postpandemic recovery too, which opens up our hiring strategies to broader pools of talented individuals, including persons with disabilities.

      But let’s not stop there.  Disability inclusion is more than adding persons with disabilities to the workforce. It’s a cultural shift that prioritizes creating an environment where every employee can flourish to their highest potential. And it is a mindset that actually values the rich contribution of those with a diversity of lived experience.

      That’s been our goal in the Public Service of Canada. 

      As part of the federal government’s first-ever Accessibility Strategy for the Public Service, a workplace accessibility passport is being piloted across more than 20 organizations.  This will allow the public service to shift from a “duty to accommodate” to a culture of creating the conditions for employees to thrive.

      The accessibility passport supports conversations between an employee and their manager and records the agreement about workplace accommodation tools or measures to be provided. And it starts from the principle of “tell us once”, so that employees no longer have to “relitigate” every time they change managers or jobs, which is currently too often the case. It shifts the conversation from, “Tell us what’s wrong with you” to, “Let’s discuss how we can remove barriers in the workplace that prevent you from making your best contribution.”

      Feedback is critical, and our early adopter community is helping us to refine and redesign the pilot project so it works for everyone. We meet informally to troubleshoot, share promising practices, and find solutions. And this year, we will be launching a digital version of the accessibility passport with the goal of making it available throughout the public service.

      It’s time we began shifting our workplace culture toward disability inclusion. Thea accessibility passport is only one tool that can help us move forward on this journey. 

      If Canada is truly going to build back better after COVID-19, we will need the support and expertise of all Canadians—including those living with disabilities—to get there.

      Yazmine Laroche was Canada’s first deputy minister of public service accessibility and the former deputy minister champion for federal employees with disabilities. She is also a board member and the past chair of Muscular Dystrophy Canada.