As of July 1, employers in Ontario are mandated to provide training around accessibility to all staff, rather than only those who deal with the public.
The change comes as a result of the provincial government’s review of the customer service section of the Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), which began in 2013 and was released in June.
Employers must now ensure all employees and volunteers within an organization are trained on how to provide accessible service.
When addressing AODA requirements, employers should have a long-term view of how to implement training and other changes, said Edie Forsyth, co-founder and corporate director of Accessibility Experts in Oshawa, Ont.
“You have to have a multi-year plan that shows how this rolls out,” she said.
“The training piece is really important and our government of Ontario has laid it out really well. First, they did the customer service standard and that was all about how you interact with people with disabilities. So you got to learn different disability types, and what their needs are. And then they followed that with the next set of standards, which is the integrated accessibility standards regulation.”
Then, the whole employment standards piece came into play, said Forsyth. That was for hiring new people with disabilities, but also encouraging existing employees to disclose if they have a disability.
“It kind of removed the stigma,” said Forsyth. “People are now coming forward that are employed that may have had dyslexia or a learning disability and have never disclosed it in 25 years. Now, they’re comfortable, they’re educated and they know that they can get some accommodations if they wish.”
A strong focus on the education piece is critical in making workplaces accessible and accommodating — both for the public they serve and for employees, said Forsyth.
“At first. it was only for those people that dealt with the public, and now they’ve included everyone. And I think that’s really important because we’re seeing a cultural shift, we’re hiring more people with disabilities and, of course, more people are disclosing that they have disabilities. So it’s not just the public that are the people with the disabilities, it’s the internal staff (as well),” she said.
“You may have an employee with a disability, and now you’re going to be able to know what verbiage to use, using that person-first language, and dealing with them in a more appropriate manner that respects their dignity and independence.”
Most people can relate to all of this because they’ve got aging parents, or they’ve got friends and family who are people with disabilities, she said. And it’s very likely the official statistics vastly underestimate the proportion of people with disabilities in Canada, she said, because people often don’t self-identify as a person with a disability.
“When StatsCan sends out their census form for us to fill in, it’s just a check box — ‘Are you a person with a disability?’ And some people don’t like to disclose they have a disability, and other people don’t see themselves as being disabled.”
The main thing to know about disability is the only real common factor is difference, said Jutta Treviranus, director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University in Toronto.
“There is no sort of cohesive or common factor, and so the type of design that individuals with disabilities are worst served by is a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said.
“Anyone can experience a disability. If you think about a lecture where you have a number of individuals listening to the lecture, the person who’s blind is probably less disabled because they can hear the lecture… but the person sitting beside them who hasn’t read the background material or doesn’t speak the language very well may be in a more disabling position than the person who is blind.
“Disability is a relative thing, so it’s the responsibility of the designer to ensure that they design according to the needs of each individual.”
There are also the spillover effects — that is, whatever you do within an organization to benefits persons with disabilities will benefit all of your employees, said Treviranus.
“In terms of investments in making a better workplace, anything that is intended to improve the workplace to therefore increase productivity… the best investment and the greatest return on your investment will be if you address accessibility.”
Diverse workplace – and workforce
The more that employers and employees are educated around people with disabilities, the better and more informed decisions they can make when it comes to shaping the workplace and the workforce, said David Onley, Ontario’s special advisor on accessibility.
“Employers should consider hiring people with disabilities in order to increase their profits — (that’s) the bottom line. It is a business case, it is a business case that’s not well-understood, but once the facts are introduced on the basis of multiple case studies and surveys, the evidence is absolutely incontrovertible,” he said.
“Most employers who end up hiring employees who have a range of disabilities end up increasing their productivity. It seems counterintuitive, but it happens. The productivity is increased by hiring people with disabilities because the job retention rate is higher, the absenteeism rate is lower.
“Again, counterintuitive — but the facts are the facts.”
The evidence in favour of hiring persons with disabilties is well-documented and long-standing, and it’s there for anyone who takes the time to look, he said.
“When the federal panel on employees in the workplace with disabilities was completed in January of 2013, the report demonstrated through dozens of case studies all across Canada — from companies that were very big and companies that were very small, medium-sized, through multiple areas of the marketplace — that, without exception, productivity increased and therefore the bottom line improved. Productivity was higher and therefore profits were higher,” said Onley.
“Good business leaders look at all of the information, look at the factual information, and don’t just trust their instincts or what their first impression would be.”
Yet many employers still possess misplaced fears around hiring persons with disabilities, he said.
“That is the biggest barrier facing people with disabilities, and that is that people with disabilities who are going in for job interviews are faced with a kind of disabiliphobia on the part of employers who are fearful of higher absenteeism and lower job retention. These are myths and mythologies that have been part of the marketplace, sadly, for decades. But once you delve into the studies, once you find out what the facts are, it helps employers get past that first impression about a person with a disability,” he said.
“Employers that get past that are rewarded for it, and they’re rewarded in financial terms.”
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