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Rick Hansen at his office in Richmond, BC on January 11, 2013.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

Half of Canadians believe it's understandable if an employer thinks it's too risky to hire someone with a physical disability, according to a new survey by the Angus Reid Institute and the Rick Hansen Foundation.

At the same time, 90 per cent of Canadians say that accessibility for people with physical disabilities is a human right and not a privilege.

The survey reveals some ignorance on disability and accessibility issues, including that Canadians vastly underestimate the number of disabled people in the population although more than half say they know disabled people, or see a person with a physical disability every day in their workplace or socially.

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Thirty years ago, Mr. Hansen embarked on his Man in Motion world tour to fight for accessibility for the disabled, and he says there has been progress, but he still constantly runs into physical barriers – a small space he can't manoeuvre into with his wheelchair, a public washroom that isn't accessible or that Thai restaurant in Toronto he couldn't get into recently because it was down two flights of stairs.

"There seemed to be a split intuitively between how people were thinking about disability and where sometimes we thought we were," said Mr. Hansen about the need for this new survey. "I am always asked everywhere I go, 'So, how accessible is Canada?' 'What are Canadians thinking?' And so the notion started to emerge that we needed to do more research on this issue …."

The online poll of 1,527 Canadians was released Thursday – the United Nations' International Day of Persons with Disabilities – and was conducted between Oct. 20 and 25. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The survey shows 58 per cent believe that one in 25, or fewer, Canadians are disabled. Actually, it is one in seven. And 55 per cent say they are exposed to physical disability in their everyday lives, either personally, or through work or friends, according to the survey.

"People identify or think the prevalence of disability is only one in 25 … so I think what it does, it points to a need for all of us who care about this issue to really bring greater awareness to the fact that disability is a big deal in Canada," Mr. Hansen says.

Also of concern to him is that half of respondents said it is "understandable that employers feel it's risky to hire people with physical disabilities."

Mr. Hansen says there are still a significant number of stigmas associated with being disabled.

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"Perhaps [there] is not a lot of real awareness about the level of productivity that takes place," he says. "I think the business case for disability hasn't been made and it exists, but it hasn't been made. It really puts our community on notice that we need to activate what we call the sleeping giant, which is the business community, and truly emerge the economic opportunity in this area."

The poll results come as Ontario Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid is announcing Thursday a two-year, $4-million fund to help disabled people, unemployed indigenous people, long-term unemployed, older unemployed, and newcomers to Canada, find jobs.

Businesses who hire people who are facing barriers to employment will be given discounted rates on financial products, including loans, according to the initiative.

Mr. Hansen says that through the years the field of disability and accessibility has moved from being all about charity to a human-rights movement. Now, he says, advocates must tackle the business world.

Some provincial colleges, for example, he says graduate disabled students at normal rates but they don't have close to normal employment rates. "So there is a great pool of untapped talent. If stigmas exist, of course we're not going to be having the best level of productivity and capacity here in Canada."

Despite those who say they understand the risk of hiring a person with a disability, the poll found that two in five Canadians said opportunities for employment was the biggest barrier facing people with disabilities.

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Eighty-seven per cent of respondents said it's a "waste not to recognize and promote the potential" of disabled people and 73 per cent said there is "a lot of prejudice towards people with physical disabilities."

As to how accessible Canada is compared with other countries, Mr. Hansen says he doesn't know. "So far there is no formal index for measurement and it's really critical," he says. "I think it's one of the important priorities moving forward, because if we can answer that question it also helps to sharpen the mind in terms of where we're at and where we need to go …"

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