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For employers, it pays to support disabilities Add to ...

John Huynh was eager and talented. And, with a degree in economics from York University in Toronto, he seemed a prime candidate for a career in finance.

But while the employers he approached were happy to interview him, "afterwards, I didn't hear a response, or they'd say I wasn't the candidate they were looking for," he says.

The reason? He has a physical disability that limits his mobility and the strength in his arms. While he can walk without assistance, he needs an office with features such as a powered door opener, an adaptable chair and ergonomic office equipment. He believes those turned into deal breakers in his job hunt.

"It's frustrating," Mr. Huynh says. "It's illegal for employers to say they can't offer someone a job because they are disabled, so, rather than say that, they will say 'sorry, you don't have enough experience,' " Mr. Huynh says. "That means you can't prove what you can do because you can't get a foot in the door."

That's been the dilemma facing Canadians with disabilities for years -- but experts as well as employers say there is a growing recognition of the need to accommodate disabled workers and use their skills.

Kaye Leslie, manager of work force diversity for Bank of Nova Scotia in Toronto, says she is hopeful the tide has finally turned for recognition of ability rather than disability.

"This is not saying 'please give these people a job,' it is about 'look at the calibre of people we have here.' We can't afford any longer to keep ignoring this pool of talented labour," Ms. Leslie told a conference on diversity sponsored by the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business last week in Toronto.

And today, career experts from across the country are meeting in Toronto to hammer out a set of recommendations for employers on using the skills of people with disabilities as part of a consultation sponsored by the Conference Board of Canada.

The reasons are practical, says Ms. Leslie, who has a vision disability. An aging work force nearing retirement means employers are having to compete for talent as never before, she explains. Meanwhile, technologies can more easily accommodate the needs of disabled workers, giving them access to education and greater ability to do their work.

And employers are looking at an enormous pool of potential talent that has been underfished in the past, she notes.

According to the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey by Statistics Canada in 2002, the percentage of Canadians who identified themselves as having disabilities ranged from 8.4 per cent in Quebec to 17.1 per cent in Nova Scotia.

This wide variation is mostly due to the fact that many people don't want to claim disabilities because of the stigma that it might disqualify them for work, Ms. Leslie said.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is between 60 per cent and 80 per cent, regardless of education and experience, she says.

"There are still a lot of myths. A lot of people think being disabled means people in wheelchairs," Don Peuramaki, executive producer for Fireweed Media in Toronto, told the Ivey conference. But disabilities range from sight, speech and hearing deficits to learning disabilities, epilepsy and mental health issues.

However, there are more support systems and equipment available to help people overcome limitations they may face, so disabilities represent much less of a barrier to active and meaningful work than they once did, Mr. Peuramaki said.

The biggest roadblock now is workplace attitudes that have not changed with the times, he says.He encourages employers to look at banks, which have been at the forefront of actively recruiting people with disabilities.

One such program gave Mr. Huynh his big break.

He heard from York University's career centre that Bank of Montreal was looking for someone to help develop a recruitment strategy for people with disabilities. He was hired in 2001 as an intern through the bank's Ability Edge program. The program pays a stipend for up to six months to help people with disabilities make the transition into full-time work.

"That was what I needed to show the work I was capable of doing. Since then, my progress has been based on the work I've done and my disabilities were never, ever a factor," he says.

Over the next six years, Mr. Huynh earned a series of promotions, through the direct banking division to personal banking and then to risk management. Now, at 29, he is an associate manager in marketing.

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