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Vim Kochhar, founder and chair of the Canadian Foundation for Physically Disabled Persons, founder of the Canadian Helen Keller Centre, and former senator

People with disabilities are Canada’s biggest minority community. One in five – or about 20 per cent of our population – lives with a disability. Why then is there so little representation from this demographic on the boards of our country’s corporations?

Instead of just asking the question, the Canadian Foundation for Physically Disabled Persons (CFPDP) is leading the charge to help bring about positive change.

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According to a 2020 report on diversity disclosure practices from Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt LLP, only five Canadian public companies reported having a board member who identified as a person with a disability. Companies have made great strides in recruiting women for director roles over the past 40 years, and we are now calling on corporations to add people with disabilities.

The foundation’s A Seat at the Table initiative was born from the realization that Canadian corporate boards have little if any representation of individuals with physical disabilities. The program’s aim is to change the status quo and help people with disabilities obtain director positions.

I had been thinking about developing this type of program for a number of years. In 2018, I was inspired to take action as I listened to former prime minister Brian Mulroney speak at a foundation luncheon after being inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Mulroney shared how appointing Canada’s first minister responsible for disabled persons had helped guide his government to make numerous progressive policy and program decisions on behalf of the disability community. I immediately realized that a government cabinet is like a corporate board, so appointing people with disabilities as directors could similarly bring about positive results.

Drawing on my personal contacts, CFPDP has brought together a group of senior business leaders who are eager to help. This group, which is being led by 11 chief executive officers and senior executives, is charged with choosing qualified people whom they will recommend as candidates to corporations based on their credentials, competencies and experience.

Additionally, in an effort to broaden the thinking behind today’s important initiatives on diversity and inclusion, we have launched a vigorous campaign to draw attention to A Seat at the Table.

A disability should not be a barrier to joining a corporate board. The attention that diversity and inclusion efforts are receiving is extremely encouraging, but we must do more to ensure that all Canadians feel included. This is the time to make corporations aware of the significant contributions Canadians with disabilities can make.

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Boards often recruit new directors from their own contacts – so people they already know or who are within their existing networks get these opportunities. This creates a homogeneous board lacking diverse groups of people, including those with physical disabilities.

Many people with disabilities are incredibly accomplished, and we see stories every day regarding their achievements. Part of our mission for A Seat at the Table is to highlight these success stories.

Bringing a disability perspective to the table is also another way that corporate Canada can further serve its bottom line. Imagine having a ready resource on your own board, and being able to tap into the thinking and customer service needs of more than 20 per cent of Canadians. This is achievable if companies build leadership teams that more closely align with Canada’s demographics.

A Seat at the Table aims to help companies do this by identifying, vetting, and then recommending qualified board-level candidates. The foundation is also supporting educational opportunities for this demographic group by establishing scholarships. The organization has established endowment funds at Toronto’s Ryerson University and York University and is looking to extend this program to other major postsecondary institutions across Canada.

According to Jim Sanders, former CEO of CNIB, people with disabilities have an advantage in their mindset and acquired skills. He says people who have hearing loss often make broader use of their eyesight, and people with low or no vision make more use of their hearing. As well, we have seen people with disabilities prove themselves in a wide variety of sports, and a Paralympic gold medal is as widely recognized as Olympic gold. There are also already many successful professionals whose genius has propelled them to top positions in their fields.

As CFPDP moves A Seat at the Table forward, I believe society as a whole must work together to remove physical barriers and create educational opportunities. At the same time, our dedicated group of Canadian corporate leaders will continue to encourage qualified people with disabilities to submit applications through the foundation for board positions.

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We will continue to raise awareness with the public and present qualified leaders to corporate Canada. I am hopeful that we will see more people with disabilities on Canadian boards by the end of 2021.

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