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President & CEO, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.

Today, the business case for inclusion and diversity is more accepted than ever. Race, gender, sexual identity and mental health have all advanced as meaningful social issues and a focus of public attention. Although there is still much more progress to be achieved, this awareness demonstrates society’s collective understanding of difference. Yet, people with disabilities, particularly youth, have not yet been a visible part of this conversation and have incredible skills to offer our workplaces and economy.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 (when data was last updated) the employment rate of working-age Canadians with disabilities was 49 per cent, compared with 79 per cent for Canadians without a disability. The vast majority of those people’s disabilities do not prevent them from working and almost half of these potential workers are post-secondary graduates. To make matters worse – despite legislative efforts to prevent this – 33 per cent of people with disabilities in the labour market say they have been denied a job because of their disability. This is unacceptable.

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And because they are disproportionately unemployed or underemployed, people with disabilities can be unfairly perceived as a drain on society. That lens needs to shift – to understanding that people with disabilities contribute their own strengths and uniqueness to Canada’s diversity. Working at a rehabilitation hospital for kids and youth, I see the strengths of young people with disabilities first-hand every day. The expertise, talent, passion and resiliency they show is unparalleled. Yet, because of their disabilities they routinely face the consequences of stigma – staring, whispers, name-calling, social exclusion, bullying and outright discrimination – and many of us take little notice.

Often people without disabilities have gaps in their understanding of disability and underestimate how much those with disabilities value and enjoy their lives and how much they have to offer, including to employers. The time for change has come. In fact, the time came long ago, but together we can be part of the solution to bridging the gap.

Businesses are adept at adjusting products and services to target new markets. Our experience with employers we’ve coached to hire young people with disabilities is that the return on investment of maximizing the talent pool is undeniable. Here’s some hiring advice that has created success for both top employers and employees with disabilities they’ve successfully brought on board:

Proactively recruit applicants with disabilities

Recruiting can often be a roadblock because many employers don’t know where to start. The good news is every province has local employment-support organizations who will work with you to understand your organization’s human-resources needs and provide best practices for hiring and creating diverse workplaces. Plus, they can help to link you up with great talent.

Extend your talent pipeline to younger workers

Employment during our youth helps build our skills and confidence for our future jobs and careers. Young workers with disabilities are at a disadvantage in today’s economy because they have less experience to draw on and more competition. This is a missed opportunity for businesses because young workers bring curiosity, innovation and enthusiasm to our talent pool that is hard to replicate. Consider where young workers may be a good fit for your organization and review applicants accordingly.

Invite self-disclosure in your application process

Make it clear on your job postings that you are an employer who values diversity and recruits people with disabilities. Then, review resumés carefully. Young workers with disabilities may have less paid work experience on their resumé than peers without disabilities, but these outstanding young workers with disabilities have honed their strengths and skills in other ways. These youth have likely had to overcome more obstacles, demonstrating resiliency on a regular basis. In addition, consider an experiential component in your recruitment process or paid-job trials as a starting place. Many talented individuals are better doers than talkers and may be disadvantaged in interviews.

Combat stigma through education

Create a culture of acceptance by establishing organizational guidelines that provide accommodations to support a variety of employees and actively engage workers in diversity topics through lunch-and-learns or blogs to encourage awareness and discussion. Teach staff about disability, respectful language and offer tips and tools to help the whole team succeed. Then measure your progress by regularly surveying workers to explore their satisfaction with your policies and encourage feedback to improve the workplace for everyone.

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Last but not least, celebrate the uniqueness of all your employees.

By taking even small steps toward creating a workplace culture that celebrates diversity, you demonstrate the importance of recognizing the unique contributions of all employees and set the right tone for our future work force. Just imagine, if every employer in Canada hired at least one person with a disability, more than one million people would be able to apply their talents to our businesses and economy.

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