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Tim Rose is a member of CIBC’s inclusion and diversity team, with more than a decade of experience in advocacy and employment consulting in the disability community. He holds a master of law in human rights with a focus on international disability policy from the University of Nottingham.

Canadians with disabilities have long faced significant barriers to employment. Now, more than a year into the major economic and social tsunami of COVID-19, those barriers have been exacerbated. As a high-risk group, Canadians living with disabilities – both visible and invisible – have been more socially isolated during the pandemic, and a recent Statistics Canada survey shows that one-third of respondents with disabilities experienced job loss in the past year.

As a person with a significant physical disability, I have first-hand experience with the many challenges this community faces. For several years after completing postsecondary education, I was the unemployed, talented candidate with a disability, struggling to find a career.

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We represent a largely untapped talent pool in Canada, and yet our unemployment numbers remain unfortunately high. This is not a new story: 2017 Statscan research shows that of the more than three million Canadians who identified as living with a disability, only three in five were employed. Of those not employed, almost 40 per cent had the potential for paid work but were unable to find suitable employment.

The business case for hiring persons with disabilities has been well documented in Canada. Research by the Conference Board of Canada found these individuals have higher retention rates and lower absenteeism and contribute positively to the bottom line. Looking beyond the numbers, characteristics that are prized in desirable candidates, such as agility and creativity, are inherent to many with disabilities.

So what is holding companies back from leveraging a talent pool made up of people who in many cases are eager to prove themselves?

One reason is that many organizations continue to fall short, often unintentionally, when it comes to providing an inclusive workplace culture where persons with disabilities feel truly supported. In an early 2020 survey conducted by MaRS Discovery District with support from CIBC, 55 per cent of respondents said their workplace was not accessible. The survey also found many people believe employees with disabilities cost more to accommodate, are difficult to work with and are less productive. These findings show there are long-standing structural issues and misconceptions keeping people with disabilities from employment.

However, despite the new challenges posed by the pandemic for this community, there are opportunities to tackle the systemic issues that persist.

First, companies need to invest in removing barriers. Corporate Canada must look beyond ramps and elevators and invest in workplace culture, training, technology and resources needed for individuals with disabilities to thrive. This can be as simple as purchasing screen-reading software or training employees to leverage the accessibility features built into most programs and applications today.

Second, make it measurable – make a commitment that you want your work force to reflect the clients and communities you serve, including those who live with disability.

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Third, create support networks for persons with disabilities, both within workplaces and the broader community. Social and community networks were frequently identified as key contributors to personal well-being and professional success in the MaRS-CIBC research. In a virtual environment, it is the responsibility of both employers and team members to make putting accessibility first and thinking about accommodations such as online captioning as business-as-usual activities.

And perhaps most importantly, we need to harness the power of the innovation economy to unlock the potential of people with disabilities in Canada. CIBC has partnered with MaRS to launch the Inclusive Design Challenge, focused on bringing together the disability and innovation communities to help employers better enable people with disabilities to contribute fully within their organizations and to help talented people in this community make the most of their opportunities. The goal is to create dialogue, generate new perspectives and work together to solve systemic and attitudinal problems.

The time to invest in new approaches is now. COVID-19 has significantly changed the nature of work. Flexible work environments are the new norm, and for many people with disabilities, this represents a huge opportunity to shift perceptions about productivity.

To ignite our economy postpandemic, Canada needs to maximize our intellectual capital. People with disabilities are yearning to contribute more. Now is the time for Corporate Canada to invest in growth and innovation within this community, to unlock human capital and contribute to our shared success.

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