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Francie Munoz has worked at Wanda’s Pie in the Sky for just over a year. She works three hours every other week, stamping and folding pie boxes.Glenn Lowson/Handout

At Wanda’s Pie in the Sky bakery and café in Toronto’s Kensington Market, owners Wanda and David Beaver work to create a sense of comfort and belonging for their customers – and staff. It’s why the owners have a policy to hire workers with disabilities, incorporating both hospitality and inclusion into the business.

Ms. Beaver recently hired Francie Munoz, who has Down syndrome, to work in the café part-time. “She comes a couple of times a week and peels apples, folds boxes,” Ms. Beaver says. “We pay her minimum wage. She is very happy here.”

At a time when it’s challenging to find employees, small businesses often consider hiring people with disabilities. However, many falsely believe that the steps in doing so are time-consuming and complicated – with uncertain outcomes.

With numerous agencies assisting in the recruitment and skill-matching process for people with disabilities, a large number of qualified candidates seeking work, and government funding available for businesses that hire disabled workers, small businesses can often find staff who will meet their needs.

John Rae, first vice-chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, says there’s a large pool of candidates in Canada, with just over 2.1 million people aged 25 to 64, or 11 per cent of the population, reporting a mental or physical disability in 2012, according to Statistics Canada.

Still, Canadians with disabilities are lagging in employment compared with people without disabilities. In 2011, the employment rate of Canadians aged 25 to 64 with disabilities was 49 per cent compared with 79 per cent for Canadians without a disability, according to Statistics Canada.

“We are the most underemployed segment of Canada’s population,” says Mr. Rae, who is legally blind. “We want to be hired and given the opportunity to contribute and progress.”

Meanwhile, a BDC survey of Canadian small- and medium-sized businesses says nearly 40 per cent are having trouble hiring new employees because of labour shortages. “We do not expect labour shortages to get better for at least a decade,” states the report, which suggests employers consider “underused segments of the labour force,” including new immigrants as well as people with disabilities.

“They don’t consider us as able,” Mr. Rae says of some employers. “But it’s not the reality.”

There are several agencies focused on identifying suitable candidates with disabilities and matching them with small businesses. An example is EmployAbilities in Edmonton, a non-profit that provides skill development, education and employment services to adults and young people with medical issues, whether mental or physical.

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Wanda Beaver, owner of Wanda’s Pie in the Sky in Toronto’s Kensington Market, chats with Francie while they fold pie boxes together on Tuesday July 2, 2019.Glenn Lowson/Handout

Jon Garland, the employment development supervisor for EmployAbilities, says one of the agency’s objectives is to educate businesses about the value disabled employees can bring.

“Persons with disabilities have demonstrated that they tend to stay with employers that value their contributions and embrace them as part of the overall team,” Mr. Garland says.

In addition to being productive team members, he says these employees can also offer guidance for businesses seeking to expand to new markets serving people with physical or mental impairments.

Examples include providing feedback on modifying products to ensure they can be used by clients with disabilities or ensuring that clients with a physical or mental impairment are able to receive a product or service during delivery.

The feedback from small businesses that have hired people with disabilities has been positive: According to a Bank of Montreal survey, 77 per cent of small-business owners who hired someone with a disability reported that these employees either met or exceeded their expectations.

EmployAbilities offers programs that enable employers to hire disabled employees on a trial basis, at 25 hours a week for a period of 10 weeks. The skills of the employee are matched to the job they’ll be doing, and employers are offered a wage subsidy during that period.

Other agencies such as the Ontario Disability Employment Network can also offer staffing solutions, ensuring there is a good fit for the employee and business. There are also provincial subsidies to help companies cover some of the costs associated with hiring a disabled person.

In Ontario, for example, small businesses can receive provincial grants covering up to half of an employee’s wages up to a maximum of $13,500 for three to nine months. Or they can receive up to $20,000 to offset salary and specialized training of employees for up to 12 weeks. There is also the option to have 90 per cent of assistive devices and specialized training covered, up to a maximum of $3,000 an application, according to MentorWorks Ltd., a private team of government funding planners based in Guelph, Ont.

But Mr. Rae says that many employers are intimidated by hiring employees with disabilities. Common concerns are that human-rights legislation prevents them from asking questions about a person’s disability, or the business believes it will be saddled with costly accommodations, such as building ramps or reconfiguring a workspace, if the disability is more severe than initially described.

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The pie case at Wanda’s Pie in the Sky bakery in Toronto’s Kensington Market.Glenn Lowson/Handout

If a small business has created a welcoming environment, has policies around inclusion and articulates an eagerness to accommodate, Mr. Rae says candidates will be more forthcoming about their needs. “There needs to be a willingness [on the employer’s part] to make accommodations,” he says.

Once the need for a specific accommodation has been identified, the employer also needs to have some flexibility. People with disabilities may have to have their workload adjusted or be given more time to complete a task. Many agencies can provide toolkits to help companies handle these issues.

Mr. Rae says many employees with disabilities require fewer accommodations than employers anticipate, adding that many have spent years finding ways to surpass their own physical and mental limitations. “We develop our own strategies and workarounds – and after all, an employer wants an adaptable person,” he says.

When Ms. Munoz was first hired at Wanda’s Pie in the Sky bakery, colleagues observed what tasks she was comfortable doing and which ones she couldn’t complete. With that understanding, she was assigned jobs she could work on at her own pace, in an environment where she felt comfortable.

“She’s in front of customers, which she likes,” Ms. Beaver says. “We’ve found a happy medium. You want to make someone useful in the business.”

Another employee with cognitive delay, Nancy Sevigny, has taken on an increasing number of tasks in her 22 years at the bakery. “She’s part of our family,” Ms. Beaver says.

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