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Welcoming People With Disabilities Into Our Corporate Communities Is a Win-Win

Dec 21, 2015
Photo of Ruth Wright
Leadership and Human Resources Research

Ontario’s new standard requiring large private sector employers to make their workplaces and employment processes more accessible for people with disabilities will come into effect on January 1, 2016.

Ontario has set a laudable goal of making the province fully accessible for people with disabilities by the year 2025. Employment is a key component of this comprehensive strategy, and it is foundational to individuals’ ability to fully participate in society. It affords economic stability and security for people with disabilities, who are too often shut out of our workplaces. Employment is also essential to our identity and sense of well-being. And, given the size of the population, it injects financial and other stimuli into our communities. Accessible employment practices are truly a win-win.

Unfortunately, arcane recruitment and selection practices too frequently have the unintended effect of screening out capable individuals. Pervasive stigma means that existing employees cope in silence when minor accommodations could break down barriers that prevent them from optimizing their potential. Ineffective disability management practices cost millions, while progressive workplace practices could help reintegrate employees who have acquired a disability. Don’t forget that disability is exponentially associated with age. Attention to ergonomics and other small accommodations can help our mature corporate citizens who love their work extend their careers by years.

To underscore the magnitude of this issue, it is important to understand that people with disabilities compose over 10 per cent of our working-age population. Roughly two-thirds of disabilities are mild to moderate. Given the incredible advances in accessible technologies and other basic supports that are available—even to people with severe disabilities—a majority of our citizens with disabilities are able and willing to work, notwithstanding some structural issues associated with our disability benefits system. Our public schools and post-secondary institutions have stepped up to provide significant support systems and accommodations for students, resulting in people with disabilities attaining higher levels of education over recent decades; graduation rates from post-secondary institutions are approaching those of the general population.

Yet employment rates of people with disabilities have remained stubbornly low. This population is two to three times more likely to be unemployed, depending on the data you use and how it is cut. Simply put, the gap in employment levels between people with disabilities and people without hasn’t changed in decades.

It’s time for employers to examine the unintended consequences of employment systems that shut skilled and capable domestic talent out of our work places. That’s the spirit of the regulation. What the new employment standard asks, at its core, is for businesses to be proactive by simply letting prospective recruits and existing employees know that it is okay to ask for accommodations. That may be as simple as letting potential applicants know that they can bypass an inaccessible online application form, adapt the format of a pre-employment test, or be provided with a basic piece of equipment—on request. Provide opportunities for people to ask for a needed accommodation and make the process comfortable. The new standard also requires that new hires and existing employees with disabilities have an accommodation plan—a live document that contemplates career development and advancement and is updated as roles and work locations change.

Employers already have a duty to accommodate people with disabilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code. The Employment Standards Act requires that employees be made aware that accommodations are available on request—and not just at the hiring stage. The spirit of the regulation speaks to something more. It’s about letting people with disabilities know that it is okay to ask for support, that they don’t need to cover up an issue or struggle through tasks in silence. It’s about battling pervasive stigma, however it manifests. It’s about the many signals organizations give off that tell people with disabilities that they are welcome members of our corporate communities. We need their skills, their unique competencies, and their lived experience that will help us think outside of the box and innovate. To those people, we say: “You have much to contribute. Just tell us what kind of support you need to enable you to flourish.”

Ontario has taken an innovative approach to addressing persistent underemployment of people with disabilities. It focuses on employment practices rather than quotas. An axiom of change management is that if you focus on the right behaviours, attitudinal change will follow. The new standard is an innovative way of articulating those right behaviours.

For a practical guide to implementing employment practices required under the new standard and other resources, see We are pleased to announce that our Employer Tool Kit is now available in French as well as English. Why not join our LinkedIn group for ongoing news, information, and perspective?

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