Employers need disability education

These days, a good job and a good employer are hard to find.

When you’re an individual who has a physical disability, the hunt becomes a lot more challenging. 24-year-old Sarah Mueller can attest to this. Mueller is paralyzed from the waist down, uses a wheelchair and has had her share of employers.

In December 1998, she applied for a job as a telemarketer with a company operating in downtown Barrie, Ont. During her interview, she sensed a little apprehension from the interviewer and soon found out why.

“They came right out and said, ‘We’ve never had someone in a wheelchair apply for this position before.’”

Although Mueller was accepted for the post, it wasn’t long before problems began to arise. The office suite in which she worked — a complex shared by a number of different companies — had washroom facilities which weren’t as accessible as they should have been.

“They did their best, but there was no way the chair I’m in now would fit. It was the bare minimum,” she says. “They started remodelling by the time I left.”

Also, the doors leading to the office suite had no automatic door opener, so opening them was difficult.

“Even people without a disability found them heavy,” she says.

Mueller says she had no problems with fellow employees, who treated her like everyone else, but she discovered her employers — although friendly — weren’t too accommodating to some of her needs.

Break times, which Mueller would also use as her bathroom breaks, were a constant issue.

“They didn’t consider that someone with a disability may need a little more time in the bathroom,” she explains. “They didn’t come out and say anything about it, but I could tell they weren’t pleased when I’d come back a little later than everyone else.”

As the weather became harsh, so did their attitudes when it came to asking for days off.

Mueller recalls a couple of days where the temperature dropped below -15C. She was particularly concerned because the frigid temperatures would cause the tires of her wheelchair to explode. Mueller called her supervisors to let them know she couldn’t come to work because of this reason and she says they were far from understanding.

“I asked if my job was in jeopardy because of this. They said, ‘It very well could be.’”

With only six weeks under her belt, Mueller decided she couldn’t handle it any longer. These incidents, combined with the nature of the position itself, were enough for her to quit.

Looking back now, Mueller says she doesn’t think her employer’s actions were deliberate.

“This was new territory for them,” she explains. “They could’ve done better, but I have to give them credit for hiring me in the first place.”

But she has also had the chance to work with a more flexible employer.

In August 1999, Mueller was offered the opportunity to work as a receptionist for a new massage therapy clinic in Barrie. She applied and was called in by the head of the clinic who showed an interest in meeting Mueller’s special needs. She showed her the workspace and asked for feedback about the placement of desks and filing cabinets.

“They went out of their way to make it accommodating,” she says.

Mueller’s new employer was much more receptive to her health issues also. They were more understanding when it came to scheduling around doctor’s appointments, she says.

She says employers have come a long way in terms of considering the needs of employees with disabilities. But, she adds, there’s still a lot more that can be done.

“They still need some education, but then again, who doesn’t?”

There are many things employers can do to make employees with disabilities feel more at ease in the workplace. The first step can start even before someone is hired, she says. Don’t assume anything about an employee or job candidate with a disability. If you’re not sure, ask.

“From personal experience,” Mueller says, “I’d appreciate my employer to come out and ask me what my disability is — if they want to know — and express their fears and concerns.”

For employers who want to include workers with disabilities in the workplace, they should have them in mind when creating their workspaces.

“If they’re looking to start up...from bare-bones construction, go to wheelchair dealers. Ask them, ‘What’s the widest chair?’ That way, they can make their doorways wide enough for everyone.”

This includes bathroom facilities. Mueller has noticed that many bathroom stalls are constructed for people who have smaller wheelchairs than her 76.2-centimetre (30-inch) model, which makes it difficult to manoeuvre in and out of the washroom. She also mentions that there are stalls designed specifically for people who can do a standing transfer — that is, they can pull themselves up to a standing position and transfer themselves from their chair to the toilet seat. Mueller says employers should aim for a minimum standard of 91.4 centimetres (36 inches) for doorways and bathrooms.

When employers and employees with disabilities work together, Mueller says, open communication is the key.

“There are some things you can’t physically change. You have to work with what you’ve got, but if there’s something that can be changed, sit down and decide if it’s feasible.

“The employer has to have an open mind and they have to want to hire someone with a disability, even if it means forging into unknown territory.”

Diane Campbell is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

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