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A person crossing University Ave. near Pearl St. in downtown Toronto, is photographed on Nov 8, 2021. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Yazmine Laroche is Canada’s first deputy minister of public service accessibility and the deputy minister champion for federal employees with disabilities. She is also a board member and past chair of Muscular Dystrophy Canada.

As the pandemic lingers, Canadian employers are experiencing a human-resources crunch, now commonly referred to as “The Great Resignation.” Adequate staffing and training are a significant challenge for many employers.

But this challenge also comes with an opportunity.

As we are forced to redefine many of our workplaces, we can do so with a 21st-century vision. It’s time to embrace equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace – and that means disability inclusion, too.

Persons with disabilities are the largest untapped resource in the Canadian labour market, too often forgotten in other diversity hiring campaigns.

There is a 21-per-cent gap in employment rates between persons with disabilities aged 25 to 64 (59 per cent) and those without disabilities (80 per cent). TD Economics projects that by decreasing this gap and hiring persons with disabilities, 450,000 net new jobs could be added to the Canadian economy, resulting in an increase of almost $50-billion to our GDP.

A new research team, Inclusive Design for Employment Access at McMaster University, which is receiving $9-million in federal funding, recognizes the opportunity in this employment gap and says it will reimagine workplaces for persons with disabilities by building up employer capacity and confidence in hiring persons with disabilities. It’s the right approach.

Hiring more people with disabilities can address labour shortages

After new federal rules came in, how many Canadian companies increased diversity on their boards?

So why does the employment gap for persons with disabilities persist – even during a human-resources crunch? A couple of pervasive myths refuse to die.

First, employers frequently believe hiring persons with disabilities would be costly because of necessary workplace accommodations. But a 2020 U.S. Job Accommodation Network survey laid that myth to rest. It found that 56 per cent of employers reported no costs whatsoever for workplace accommodations for their employees with disabilities, while 39 per cent reported a one-time median cost of a modest US$500.

No-cost accommodations included policies such as flexible schedules and workplaces, and modified duties.

This leads to the second pervasive myth – one that the pandemic has burst wide open: that flexible workplaces and schedules are not possible.

COVID-19 showed us that, for many jobs, having employees working from home with flexible schedules is a viable alternative to an exclusively 9-to-5 office-based work force. Shuttered offices owing to lockdowns, and workers often juggling child care and home-schooling with work duties, made everyone more creative and adaptive by necessity. We all rose to the challenge.

We can channel that flexible, agile work culture toward our postpandemic recovery, too, which opens up our hiring strategies to broader pools of talented individuals, including persons with disabilities.

But let’s not stop there. Disability inclusion is more than adding persons with disabilities to the work force. It’s a cultural shift that prioritizes creating an environment where every employee can flourish to their highest potential. And it is a mindset that actually values the rich contribution of those with a diversity of lived experience.

That’s been our goal in the Public Service of Canada.

As part of the federal government’s first-ever Accessibility Strategy for the Public Service, a Workplace Accessibility Passport is being piloted across more than 20 organizations. This will allow the public service to shift from a “duty to accommodate” to a culture of creating the conditions for employees to thrive.

The accessibility passport supports conversations between an employee and their manager and records the agreement about workplace accommodation tools or measures to be provided. It starts from the principle of “tell us once,” so that employees no longer have to “relitigate” every time they change managers or jobs, which is currently too often the case. It shifts the conversation from “tell us what’s wrong with you,” to “let’s discuss how we can remove barriers in the workplace that prevent you from making your best contribution.”

Feedback is critical and our early adopter community is helping us to refine and redesign the pilot project so it works for everyone. We meet informally to troubleshoot, share promising practices and find solutions. And this year, we will be launching a digital version of the accessibility passport with the goal of making it available throughout the public service.

It’s time we began shifting our workplace culture toward disability inclusion. The accessibility passport is only one tool that can help us move forward on this journey.

If Canada is truly going to build back better after COVID-19, we will need the support and expertise of all Canadians – including those living with disabilities – to get there.

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