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Shawna Taylor works at the Arco Hotel, a government owned single-room occupancy hotel, in Vancouver on Dec. 9.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

As businesses across the country struggle with unfilled jobs, advocates say some of that work can be done by people who are often overlooked by employers: individuals who are neurodivergent, have physical disabilities or have experienced challenges such as addiction and homelessness.

People with disabilities are more likely to experience poverty because of a variety of barriers to finding work. A 2018 Statistics Canada study estimated there were about 645,000 individuals with disabilities who were able to work but were not employed.

Those who have faced barriers say finding a job can have a huge impact on their lives in ways that go beyond the financial benefits.

Shawna Taylor, who lives in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and struggled with addiction in the past, signed up for an employment readiness program through local charity Mission Possible last year. She said the experience was transformative. She now has a front-desk job at Atira Property Management, which operates supportive housing in the neighbourhood.

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“When I started with Mission Possible last year, I was at a really low point in my life,” Ms. Taylor said. “I didn’t know what I wanted, how I could do it. I didn’t believe in myself enough. And getting involved in that program showed me that I don’t need to believe what anybody else has told me. That I can do whatever I put my mind and heart to.”

Amid the pandemic, Mission Possible released a guidebook, Untapped Talent, that aims to give employers concrete advice about how to make hiring more inclusive of people with diverse abilities and life experiences.

Inclusive hiring “can seem really challenging to someone who doesn’t have the tools or the training to be able to do it,” said Matthew Smedley, the charity’s chief empowerment officer. “That’s really what the guidebook is about.”

Shawna Taylor, who struggled with addiction in the past, signed up for an employment readiness program through local charity Mission Possible last year. She said the experience was transformative.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The guidebook offers employers tips at all stages of the process. For instance, before an opening is even posted, employers are urged to consider whether a full-time job could be divided into part-time positions or even further broken down into occasional tasks that could be done over a few hours each month.

At the interview stage, employers could consider a “working interview,” in which candidates are shown a task they would be expected to perform, then given an opportunity to do it. That may help when trying to recruit a neurodivergent person who might have difficulty in a structured interview setting. The guide suggests very short work trials (less than two hours) could be unpaid, though longer ones should be paid.

And once someone is hired, it is important to provide reasonable accommodations such as space for quiet break times or providing a checklist of tasks for someone with a learning disability.

Some employers say inclusive hiring has been a boon to them.

Taylor Chobotiuk, head of people and engagement at B.C. restaurant group Tacofino, said his company has seen a number of benefits since it started working with Vancouver Community College in a program designed to train neurodivergent people in food-service skills.

While the restaurant industry as a whole has struggled to find enough skilled workers, Mr. Chobotiuk said Tacofino has been able to bring in talented workers who were also more likely to stay for a long time, which means less employee turnover.

He said it also allowed the company to be more innovative by bringing together a variety of experiences and thinking styles.

“If you do the work and you actively try to engage those communities, you’re going to be able to fill open roles with highly capable, great and positive individuals who contribute meaningfully,” he said.

Other charities around the country are also trying to destigmatize inclusive hiring.

Good Foot Delivery provides same-day courier service for customers in Toronto and recruits neurodivergent people, such as those with autism or Down syndrome. Good Foot has grown from two people a decade ago – Kirsten Gauthier and her brother Jon – to a team that currently supports more than 30 couriers.

Ada Swierszcz, the business operations manager at Good Foot, says the company has been just as focused on providing reliable service to clients, including Colliers and McKinsey, as it is on its larger mission.

“Our main pitch, to be totally honest, is really the reliability and the professionalism,” Ms. Swierszcz said. “Our courier service, yes we have our social mission, which is critical and it’s important to us and it’s really important to many of our customers, but we provide a great service. Our couriers take pride in making sure packages are delivered on time, with a smile.”

For business owners who are not sure about putting the time into changing their hiring practices, Ms. Taylor has a message: It’s worth it.

“To be able to watch them grow as a person and become more self-sufficient and believe in themselves more is worth the effort to do it,” she said. “To have the faith in somebody to go, ‘Hey, you got this,’ and walk through it with them. It means a lot. It gives them meaning.”

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