Focus on ability, not disability

The struggle has been long, the progress slow, and the resistance persistent for people with disabilities still fighting for their rightful places in the workplace.

Of course legally, employers aren’t allowed to discriminate against people with disabilities but an unemployment rate double the national average is fairly damning evidence that, on some level, discrimination continues.

“You’re not permitted by law to discriminate but it happens all the time,” said Lisa Bendall of the Canadian Abilities Foundation and managing editor of its magazine Abilities.

“I’m in touch with people with disabilities and I hear their personal stories. It all stems from a lack of awareness,” said Bendall.

Some employers are waking up to the business case — a better representation of the community they serve, not to mention a wealth of experiences, ideas, skills and abilities, she said.

But many employers still don’t understand how to accommodate people with disabilities and what people don’t understand they become frightened of and end up ignoring rather than learning how to deal with it.

“One of the biggest problems is fear,” said Evelyn Gold, director of programs and services for the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work. Many employers still think they need to know everything about the disability before they can hire somebody who has it. Employers think they have to put labels on things, said Gold. “But labels are for jars, not people.”

Instead of focusing on the disability and what the employee cannot do, employers need to focus on the ability of the person and what he can do, then discuss with the individual what accommodations would be necessary.

And what employers will find in most cases is that the accommodations that need to be made are mostly minor. Whenever employers think there is a large cost involved they are usually wrong, said Bendall. “There are statistics to show that the majority of accommodations are inexpensive. Often it is something as simple as putting a desk up on blocks of wood,” she added.

Some of the more progressive firms set aside a certain amount in annual budgets for accommodations. “It’s a wonderful business practice to build that in,” said Gold. It takes away the concerns about cost that may arise when, for example, the opportunity to hire a visually impaired person arises but the person needs a special software package to do his work.

Accommodations can be creative instead of costly. Just because somebody with a wheelchair is coming into the office doesn’t mean all of the furniture has to be taken out, just look at the space rather than tearing down the walls, said Gold.

Mostly all it takes is an open mind and a little creativity. In the past few years, employers have gone to ridiculous lengths to bring high-tech employees into their workplaces, said Gold. “All I’m saying is take some of that creativity used for high-tech geniuses and use it to bring people with disabilities into the workplace.”

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