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Many companies struggling to find the right employees are overlooking a talented pool of disabled workers, a government-commissioned panel has found.

The group found that there are almost 800,000 people with disabilities who are capable of working in Canada and almost half of them have post-secondary education.

Previous reports have found that even the disabled who have jobs are often dramatically underemployed.

"Canada is facing skills and labour shortages in many sectors, and finding ways to get all Canadians working is key to meeting this challenge," Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said in a statement as she and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty released the report on Wednesday.

The panel of private-sector employers was assembled by the federal government last summer and was asked to figure out how to better match job openings with the skills of workers with disabilities.

Their report says that when companies hire people with disabilities, no special accommodation is required in 57 per cent of cases.

When special arrangements are necessary, the average cost to the company is just $500.

"There is a strong business case to be made for businesses hiring people with disabilities," said Kenneth Fredeen, general counsel of Deloitte and Touche and chairman of the panel.

The panel spoke with 70 employers and received 130 online submissions.

Panel members found that there is a broad willingness to hire workers with disabilities, but that more education and training is needed for companies to figure out how to overcome barriers and put their ideas into practice.

"Tone from the top and the actions of leaders are imperative," the report said.

Most of the companies contacted had policies and practices to accommodate existing employees with disabilities, but were not making good use of this expertise to hire more, the report added.

Mental health disabilities were found to be particularly problematic. That's because employees have to admit to such disabilities in order to get special accommodation from employers.

"Many are reluctant to do so if the disability is hidden and/or stigmatized," the report says. "Several companies commented that colleagues may be less understanding of mental health issues than other more visible disabilities."

In 2006, about 14.3 per cent of the population, or 4.4 million people, reported a disability of some kind.

Among the working-age population, eight per cent of those aged 25 to 44 had a disability, while 18.3 per cent of those in the 45-to-64 bracket reported being disabled.

Workers with disabilities are dramatically under-represented in private-sector companies governed by the Employment Equity Act, says the most recent annual government report on disability issues. However, they are over-represented in the public service.

Labour force participation among people with disabilities is low, with 59.6 per cent active in the workforce. That's much lower than the among people without disabilities, where 80.2 per cent of working-age adults are in the workforce.

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