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Margo Bok, photographed in Esquimalt, B.C., advocates for more inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities.Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

“I’ve been asked if I am going to die from my condition in a job interview,” says Margo Bok, an MBA with a bachelor of commerce who lives with cerebral palsy.

When Ms. Bok graduated in 1986, she saw her male counterparts secure executive-level jobs while women with the same degrees were hired as secretaries. Ms. Bok’s entry into the workforce began with positions that provided wage subsidies, because no employer would hire her without additional funding.

“That’s no way to enter the working world,” says the Victoria resident.

She was consistently told that employers didn’t have the supports she needed when she had not indicated a need for any. Potential employers called her references before interviewing her to ask them if she had a disability.

Ms. Bok remembers noticing how job descriptions would be written with requirements that screened out candidates with certain physical disabilities.

“I left a desk job that later posted the job saying candidates needed to be able to lift 50 pounds,” she says. “That was never part of that job.”

Her experiences led her to create the B.C.-based Canadian Association of Professionals with Disabilities in 2003, which she founded to build community in support of people with disabilities and advocate for more inclusive workplaces.

She has since been consulted by individuals facing discrimination on the job or during job searches, such as nurses who were screened out of positions because their files were flagged after they identified as having depression. (Meanwhile, a recent survey found that 44 per cent of U.S. critical care nurses working during the COVID-19 pandemic reported moderate to severe depression.)

Canada is facing unprecedented labour shortages. As employers struggle to fill positions, they could be reaching out to workers with disabilities both visible and invisible – individuals who often aren’t given a chance to show what they can do.

Understanding and accommodation

Francois Dionne lives with mental health issues and recently discovered he is on the autism spectrum. He connected with the Canadian Association of Professionals with Disabilities after experiencing discrimination in the workplace in Quebec.

Since graduating from an IT networking program, Mr. Dionne has struggled to find consistent, sustainable work, often getting short-term contracts. He remembers an IT job in 2021, where he was verbally abused after disclosing his diagnoses to his supervisor.

“I was having performance problems,” Mr. Dionne says. “When my supervisor asked me what’s going on, I said, ‘There’s nothing going on. I’m autistic.’ He started calling me [a derogatory name].”

The Canadian Human Rights Commission receives more complaints related to disability than any other category. In the last five years, 37 per cent of CHRC complaints were based on disability.

Whether a disability is physical, mental, developmental or psychological, how employers react to disclosure and what practices they incorporate to become a more inclusive work environment could make the difference in retaining talent from a highly skilled and underemployed labour force.

“Being an inclusive employer isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s better for the bottom line,” says Michelle Eaton, vice-president of public affairs for the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC).

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the cost of excluding people with disabilities represents up to seven per cent of GDP in some countries. Citing 28 per cent higher revenue and 30 per cent higher profit margins, the WEF noted that a disability-inclusive business delivers return on investment.

The federal government has committed to hire 5,000 people with disabilities by 2025. In Ontario, the OCC created a program and platform called Discover Ability to connect Ontario employers with this untapped talent pool. Since starting the program, the OCC has trained over 1,100 employers and registered 500 employers and 2,000 job seekers in Ontario.

Louie DiPalma, vice-president of small- and medium-sized enterprise programs at the OCC, explains that the program does more than simply connect business with potential employees.

“There is training provided to deal with unconscious bias,” says Mr. DiPalma, which includes how to navigate an interview with a person who might have gaps in their work experience due to their disability and how to make interview questions more inclusive.

Opportunities in tourism and hospitality

In 2018, the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association (ORHMA) started its Diversity Recruitment Program with the aim to improve employment prospects for people with disabilities.

“It really opened our eyes,” says Fatima Finnegan, vice-president of workforce initiatives and industry relations at ORHMA.

The program successfully placed 184 persons with disabilities into the tourism and hospitality sector in Ontario. Now, ORHMA is working with the OCC to run virtual job fairs across the province.

Ms. Finnegan notes that the tourism and hospitality sector is an “all-inclusive” industry. “We accommodate all the time. It’s in our name,” she says. “We have customers that ask for no salt, fluffier pillows – these are all accommodations we provide. That’s no different than employees that need accommodations.”

Ms. Finnegan points to the family-oriented side of the tourism, hotel and motel industry – a sector that is accustomed to creating open environments for people of all abilities – as a space that is ripe for development.

She also notes that the ORHMA partnered with psychiatric teaching hospital CAMH to provide therapy for employees in this sector who were experiencing anxiety and depression due to precarious employment through the pandemic. This kind of inclusive and compassionate programming could help retain underemployed people with disabilities.

Women with disabilities particularly challenged

While government and industry association programs to promote hiring of people with disabilities are helpful, a broader sea change in the private sector is needed to improve the career prospects for this underserved group.

Bonnie Brayton is CEO of DAWN-RAFH Canada – the DisAbled Women’s Network Canada – an organization that advocates for women with disabilities. Ms. Brayton, who lives with post-polio syndrome, says that pre-pandemic, the unemployment rate for women with disabilities was 65 per cent.

“The highest rate of poverty is consistently single mothers with disabilities,” Ms. Brayton says. “They are the poorest people in this country. Add the intersectionality of these women being Black or Indigenous and they’re that much worse off.”

When asked how the pandemic has affected women with disabilities in Canada, Ms. Brayton says, “Everything has just gotten worse.”

During the pandemic, one third of people living with disabilities reported permanent or temporary job loss. Most of those job losses were in part-time employment, which largely employs women.

Given the high numbers of unemployed people with disabilities pre- and post-pandemic, Ms. Bok remains skeptical about the future of disability-inclusive workplaces. Having been in the working world for four decades, she’s seen initiatives and programming come and go.

“They’ve said people with disabilities are this emerging group in the workplace every decade since the 80s,” says Ms. Bok.

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