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opinion

Lisa Park is a director of total rewards at KPMG in Canada and founder/chair of the firm’s Disability Inclusion Network.

Elio Luongo is chief executive officer and senior partner of KPMG in Canada.

Labour shortages are one of the biggest issues facing Canadian companies right now, but there’s an underrepresented and untapped pool of skilled Canadians that could help close the gap: people with disabilities.

It’s time for Canadian businesses to commit to hiring more people with disabilities. We need to break down our own unconscious biases and tap into a pool of talent that has often been ignored or marginalized. This is both the right and the smart thing to do.

According to Statistics Canada’s 2017 survey on disability, there are 6.2 million Canadians 15 and older who have a disability (or 22 per cent of Canadian’s 15 and older). Those include mobility, sensory, pain-related, mental-health-related and cognitive disabilities.

Among Canadians with disabilities 25 to 64, only 59 per cent were employed, compared to 80 per cent of Canadians without disabilities. In 2017, 645,000 Canadians with disabilities who had the potential to work were left sitting on the sidelines.

Companies often think that accommodating someone with a disability is too hard or too expensive, but we disagree. We think it is good business to hire more people with disabilities.

They are an innovative and adaptive group of people

By living without mobility, sight, hearing or other abilities, people with disabilities have no choice but to find unique and new ways to deal with issues and situations in a society that is not made for them. They challenge priorities and processes, not just to save time and energy, but to get to the best solution in the most efficient manner.

These characteristics and skill sets are what our workplaces need now more than ever.

Recruiters often ask job candidates about a challenge they overcame in their previous jobs to gauge their problem-solving skills. Why not broaden that question to include how a person overcame a challenge in their everyday life? People with disabilities will have lots of examples to share.

Remote work has levelled the playing field for people with limited mobility

Transportation is cited as one of the biggest barriers for people with disabilities in accessing work and education.

With technology, people with physical disabilities do not have to worry about going to an office (that may be inaccessible in some form anyway). Everyone is equal when they are in a box on a video call, taking out the potential judgment or discrimination of someone who is in a wheelchair, for example.

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Offering fully remote work is not uncommon now, so there’s no business reason not to hire a qualified person who has limited mobility. However, as we enter the age of hybrid work, we also need to consider that for people who suffer from mental-health-related disabilities, remote work might be more isolating and challenging. For others, routine and consistency is necessary, so workplace flexibility is key.

Postsecondary education is more accessible than ever

Only 14 per cent of Canadians with disabilities 25 to 64 have a university degree or higher – half the rate of Canadians without disabilities – and that percentage decreases as the severity of the disability increases.

One of the key reasons for this is not the inability to learn but the historical inaccessibility of physically going to school. This means everything from inadequate transportation to classrooms and campuses ill-suited for people with disabilities.

Fortunately, in 2021, that desire can be fulfilled by endless options for online courses. Organizations are increasingly placing more value on micro-credentialling, or lifelong learning (some are tossing postsecondary degrees as requirements for certain jobs altogether), and people with disabilities have more opportunities to learn new skills or concepts without having to face physical barriers. And this provides businesses a new and deeper source of talent to work with.

People with disabilities are part of the “S” in ESG

More companies are focusing on their environmental, social and governance practices and strengthening their inclusion, diversity and equity policies. But even though they make up nearly a quarter of our population, people with disabilities are often an afterthought.

Just 4 per cent of companies consider people with disabilities in those initiatives, according to a report from the Return On Disability Group. This is a missed opportunity.

There has been progress on including more women in the work force. For racialized and Indigenous people, the progress is much slower, but it’s happening. For people with disabilities, the progress has been glacial, so it’s time to give this group the same attention as other underrepresented groups. If companies are truly serious about ESG, they need to truly see people with disabilities as a crucial part of the “S” in ESG.

Every workplace and every candidate are unique. In most cases, organizations will simply need to think differently and in others strategic investments may be required to address the unique needs of a role and a candidate with disabilities.

We don’t think companies intentionally go out of their way to exclude people with disabilities. Often, it is simply being unaware of the unconscious biases we hold. To break this, we need to be intentional.

We need to deliberately include people with disabilities in our businesses. Without this, we will continue to unintentionally exclude them.

Being intentional means we no longer ignore candidates who are highly innovative and adaptive – exactly the skills that are at a premium in today’s market. Hiring people with disabilities is doing the right thing and smart business.

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