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Rebecca Whiteway: ‘Working there, nobody judges me.’Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

It's tough enough to finish a degree in mathematics only to find the jobs available are temporary work packing boxes at Costco. It's even harder when you are also trying to hide the fact that you have autism.

Just ask Mackenzie Whitney.

Despite a math degree from the University of Alberta, Mr. Whitney has felt an unspoken stigma from some employers because of his autism. For years he was stuck toiling at marginal jobs with irregular shifts, low pay and little chance of building a career.

But that changed last year when he got a job at a Calgary-based technology firm called Meticulon Consulting Inc. Company co-founder Garth Johnson looks for people with autism because he has found that they offer unique skills such as precision, diligence, attention to detail and an ability to sustain focus. Mr. Whitney is thriving in his new job, monitoring quality assurance as a full-time junior tester.

Life "is a lot more organized," said Mr. Whitney, who is 25. "I value the routine, and I value being able to complete work at my own pace, rather than someone else's." He's paying off his debts, and "even sleep cycles changed for me. Just to have a steady eight-hour shift really helps."

Opportunity for many people like him is still scarce. More than two million Canadian adults, or 11 per cent of the population, have some sort of disability and only about half of them participate in the labour force. Of those who do look for work, the jobless rate is 40 per cent or more for some groups. Underemployment is higher and even if they hold a job, incomes among adults with disabilities are typically far lower than the rest of the population.

But that is beginning to change. Many companies are discovering the business advantages of hiring people with physical and mental disabilities. Often, these employers have found that disabled employees have unique abilities and tend to work harder to prove themselves. Turnover rates and absenteeism are also often lower. And as the population ages, and the portion of people with various disabilities grows, more inclusive hiring practices can help companies develop better goods and services for the market. There's also a deep untapped pool of talent. A 2013 study for Employment and Social Development Canada found that there were 795,000 working-age Canadians who are not working but whose disability doesn't prevent them from doing so. Almost half of these people had postsecondary education, the study found.

Mr. Johnson got the idea for hiring autistic workers from a company in Belgium called Passwerk, a software testing business that employs people with autism spectrum disorder. Meticulon has now created 12 positions for people with autism and they are paid the going rate for these jobs. The company's success is getting noticed and businesses in Toronto, Vancouver and Kelowna, B.C., are replicating the model. Mr. Johnson has also been flooded with hundreds of applicants from across Canada, including offers from parents of children with autism who are willing to move the whole family to Calgary – a sign of how desperate, and how keen, people are to have opportunities like this.

This isn't some kind of charity. Meticulon is less than two years old and fighting for business in a province hit hard by the downturn in oil prices. Mr. Johnson has already had a few contracts shelved and his challenge is to provide more thorough, accurate and timely results than his competitors. Autistic workers give the company an edge. "I'm not interested in this as a charity," he said. "If we can't prove business value, then I don't view it as sustainable for our employees, either our typically enabled or our people with autism. Business will bail on it as soon as it's not bringing in real returns."

Some potential clients worry that a consultant with autism will be disruptive or have trouble integrating, or that it's risky if it doesn't work out. "The biggest challenge is just getting the business community to buy into the taste and see the approach that we offer," Mr. Johnson said.

It's not just tech startups that are shifting hiring practices. SAP, the world's third-largest software company, has pledged that 1 per cent of its global work force will be made up of people on the autism spectrum, mirroring the number affected by the disorder in society. At SAP Canada, nine people have come on board with the expectation that a dozen more will join the company by the end of this year. The company has found "that the special talents of individuals affected by autism fit very well into the IT industry, especially in the areas of software testing, programming and data quality," said spokeswoman Carole Beatty. SAP Canada is working with a specialized recruiting company to help it reach its goal. That recruiter, Specialisterne, has a target of finding 25,000 jobs for people on the autism spectrum in Canada.

Change of mindset

In the United States, drugstore giant Walgreen Co. has hired more than a thousand people with disabilities – from those with Asperger's to obsessive-compulsive disorder, mobility challenges and schizophrenia. The company began targeting disabled workers in 2007 with a pilot project at a distribution centre where a third of its employees had a disability. The chain soon discovered that job performance was just as high among those with disabilities, while absenteeism was half that of typical workers and retention was twice as high. Workers with disabilities now comprise 10 per cent of the staff in Walgreen's supply chain alone. Other multinationals, like Best Buy, have studied Walgreen's efforts and are now replicating them. They've had to make some modifications and accommodations, but not costly ones.

"The experience taught us that performance comes in different forms. But you have to recruit differently and open the door wider," said former Walgreen executive Randy Lewis, who kick-started the effort and whose son has autism.

During a speech at a recent Toronto conference, Mr. Lewis said the first step employers should take is a change of mindset. They need to deliberately seek out people with disabilities who can perform the job just as well as any other worker. Then they need to be willing to alter the hiring process on a pilot basis to find and screen them.

The worry for many employers is accommodation – the perception they will need to reorganize work spaces, change work flow or have to buy equipment that would drive up costs. In fact, accommodation isn't necessarily expensive and often, it costs nothing at all, other than open communication.

At Toronto-Dominion Bank, about 6 per cent of its roughly 90,000 employees have some form of disability. Paul Clark, executive vice-president and chair of the bank's people with disabilities committee, said the costs of accommodating those employees were minimal – about $500 or less per person, one time. Often, it "doesn't cost a dime," he added, and it can be as simple as offering a brief afternoon break.

"What we typically find with people with disabilities is that the accommodation requirements on average are actually quite minimal. And I don't even mean monetarily. I mean to put in place – the complexity is actually quite straightforward," Mr. Clark said, stressing that this only works if there is open dialogue between the worker and employer. "People get uncomfortable having the conversation around disability. But if you get comfortable with it, most of the issues can be very easily resolved."

The benefit for the bank, he added, is that it has a work force that more closely resembles its customer base. And its workers can give insights into how to reach different customers and keep them happy.

Rich Donovan, founder and chief executive officer of Return on Disability Group, a New York and Toronto-based research organization, has studied the connection between corporate profitability and disability. He sees people with disabilities as an "emerging market" – pegging the global population at 1.3 billion, or the size of China. Factor in their friends and family and it's an additional 2.3 billion people who are affected. Together, these people control more than $8-trillion in annual disposable income, a number expected to grow even higher as the population ages.

Firms that are mindful of this emerging market will be more innovative, design products more intelligently and serve all customers better, Mr. Donovan said. "Companies could use insights from people with disabilities to make products better for everyone," said Mr. Donovan, who has cerebral palsy. Smart employers – he cites TD and Google as examples – shape their recruiting to include those with disabilities, efforts that help them find the best people.

Ken Harrenstien, a software engineer at Google, has been completely deaf since the age of five. Based in Mountain View, Calif., he's now the tech lead for the YouTube captions team, where he created the infrastructure that allows the 'company to have captions. In an e-mail, he said he likes "to think that as a deaf person, I've been able to serve as a credible representative both internally to Google/YouTube ('this is what users want') and externally to users ('Google/YouTube knows what you want')."

Hiring great workers

The hiring has broadened and now includes people with mental health issues.

Take 17-year old Rebecca Whiteway for example.

For the past year, Ms. Whiteway - who has an eating disorder along with depression and anxiety - has worked at a Tim Hortons in Toronto, managing cash and taking orders from people in the drive-through from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.

"In terms of stability and just being able to function in general, this job has really pulled me out of my shell. It's done more for me than I think any psychiatrist or doctor or any medication could ever have done," Ms. Whiteway said. "Working there, nobody judges me, everybody's very understanding ... it's just accepting and the only thing they want you to do is just do a good job."

Her employer, Mark Wafer, has seen big benefits from hiring disabled people. He owns six Tim Hortons locations in the Toronto area and has hired more than 100 people with disabilities in the past two decades. These employees range from those with panic disorders to people who are deaf, blind, autistic or have Down syndrome. "There's not a disability I haven't hired and there's not a position in my business that has not had somebody with a disability working in it," he said.

Mr. Wafer began hiring people with disabilities because it seemed like the right thing to do – he has a hearing impairment and he understood the barriers to gaining employment. He soon realized he was hiring great workers. By the 1990s, he could see a clear business case for employing people with disabilities. "I didn't consciously think, 'Hey, I can make more money with this.' I just realized that if I hire someone with a disability, they seem to work harder. It seemed to me it was a better fit," he said.

Now, he added, if he had two job candidates with similar skills and education, he would hire the one with the disability. He cited figures that showed his stores were better at making money and had lower absenteeism and a better safety record.

Employee turnover has been the big difference. His stores have less than half the turnover of his competitors and not just among workers with disabilities, but all staff. A more inclusive work environment, he said, helps with retention and productivity for everyone.

The average tenure of an entry-level Tim Hortons worker is 1.3 years. Among Mr. Wafer's staff with disabilities, the average is seven years. That's partly because since disabled people have such a hard time finding a job, they are less likely to leave for another. And turnover is expensive. It costs $4,000 in training and lost productivity for each new worker, he said.

"If my turnover is 38 per cent, and the other guy's is higher, who's making more money? That is the business case, right there," Mr. Wafer said.

Ms. Whiteway has long-term career aspirations – she would like to be a singer, artist or model. But for now, she has no plans to change jobs. Her work has helped her relearn people skills and alleviated social anxiety. She's made good friendships and loves getting to know regular customers. "I wouldn't trade anything for this job. It really just changed my life so much, just having one simple job," she said. "I'm not going to go anywhere any time soon."

'Don't be afraid'

Stefanie Marinich-Lee has advice for employers who may still be hesitant. She's a lawyer, and TD's senior manager of corporate diversity. She also happens to have a form of muscular dystrophy, which means she uses an electric wheelchair.

"Don't be afraid," she says. "A lot of times people are a bit taken aback when they hear the term disability, even when it comes out of the mouth of someone who has an invisible disability. We have to eliminate the fear factor. We're all just people, we just do things in a different way," she says.

"We also have to remember not to underestimate the contributions and value that these individuals have and the talents they come with. Realistically, I don't know if peoples' first image when they see me is, 'that's a lawyer who works at such-and-such a bank.' They might have such a perception only because they haven't encountered individuals with disabilities. We have to remember to debunk those kinds of old images."

In Calgary, Mr. Johnson is committed to proving the business case for hiring people who wouldn't necessarily get a shot at a good job.

"Success for us is getting to a point where we have a sustainable, viable business," he said. "Real success would be when we can market Meticulon based on the quality of our service – and oh, by the way, all of our staff happen to have autism. Not, we're a business that employs people with autism. For me, that would be proof of the business concept, where people come to us because we have a reputation for excellence, not a social cause."

Follow Tavia Grant on Twitter: @taviagrantOpens in a new window

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