From exclusion to inclusion

Tapping the talents of people with disabilities.

Employers say they’re keen to hire people with disabilities, they just haven’t. According to research conducted by the Conference Board of Canada employers demonstrate a high degree of awareness and support for diversity in the workplace and have policies about making their workplace more representative of the general population. But that isn’t translating into more people with disabilities finding jobs.

A key factor is the lack of experience going outside “mainstream” sources to find and recruit personnel. As a result of the plentiful labour supply in the past, conventional HR practices have proven to be a model for exclusion of people who are outside the mainstream, and it takes a major shift to adopt an inclusionary approach.

The impending shortage of workers due to the aging workforce has overtaken concerns about social justice to make employers rethink attitudes toward people with disabilities, who represent an underutilized pool of labour.

The Conference Board and the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship investigated diversity management practices, with a special focus on experiences and best practices in hiring people with disabilities and integrating them into the workplace. The research found a high level of awareness and support for diversity. Almost all of the Ontario-based employers that responded to a survey had policies in place to build more broadly representative organizations.

However, many of these organizations had clearly encountered difficulties translating policy into results. Many traditional obstacles to change were apparent, including weak support from line management, union and employees, lack of resources and little accountability for results.

Many of the organizations had experimented with numerous initiatives but were frustrated by poor results, particularly with regard to improving representation of people with disabilities in the organization. Despite an expressed willingness to hire and provide accommodations for people with disabilities, employers were having difficulty connecting with them.

The biggest challenge encountered was actually locating and recruiting job candidates. Even organizations with initiatives to improve outreach recruitment expressed concern that their efforts are not producing the desired results.

When employers were asked to rate a range of recruitment tactics in terms of how effective they were in supporting the hiring and retention of a diverse workforce, only 15 per cent of 61 organizations that used Internet recruiting rated it as effective in that context. Even more targeted recruitment tactics such as “advertising in non-mainstream press” or “adapting recruitment literature” received low effectiveness ratings by study participants.

Accommodating employees who are or who become disabled appeared to be less of a challenge. Virtually all organizations had some accommodation initiatives in place. As one employer observed, “If you have a valued employee with a proven track record, why wouldn’t you do everything in your power to keep the individual?”

Strategies and good practices
Employers frequently do not know where to turn for help in identifying and attracting job candidates with disabilities or they are discouraged before they begin because they believe that the process of contacting numerous agencies will be labour intensive. It does not have to be.

Accessing information
The first step is to gather information. The Ontario Ministry of Citizenship’s Paths to Equal Opportunity Web site (www. is an excellent place to start (even for organizations not based in Ontario). There are also several national and community-based organizations that provide general information about hiring and accommodating people with disabilities, such as the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work’s WORKink site ( and the Toronto-based Training Coordinating Group’s LinkUp site (

Make connections
Develop contacts with agencies that serve the needs of diverse communities — in this case, people with disabilities. We found that only about one-third of managers responding to our survey were networking directly with disability groups or agencies that provide employment services for people with various types of disabilities.

Tricia Pokorny, special needs co-ordinator at Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls, Ont., found good local contacts through the Niagara Employment Alliance, an umbrella agency that co-ordinates community and employment services for local chapters of organizations that provide services to people with disabilities. The up-front time invested in developing contacts was worthwhile, says Pokorny.

Many communities have similar agencies that draw from local, provincial and federal resources to provide a range of integrated services, from pre-screening of candidates, job readiness training and workplace disability awareness training to work site accessibility audits, after placement support and followup.

Proactive recruitment strategies
It is important to be proactive and look beyond mainstream sources for recruits. The Internet is a great way to broadcast employment opportunities to a wide audience, but it’s not as effective at attracting individuals from outside the mainstream, perhaps because it is passive. Organizations reported better results when recruitment initiatives were proactive and targeted at specific communities. Participation in job fairs for persons with disabilities is a great way to let the community know that yours is an organization where differences are recognized, appreciated and responded to in ways that focus on and develop each person’s talents and strengths.

Some employers with highly skilled or specialized workforce requirements reported successes from working with post-secondary institutions and even getting involved in customized training initiatives. Most colleges and university campuses have special needs departments that support students with disabilities. For example, the Glenn Crombie Centre for Disability Services provides at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ont., is recognized as a centre of excellence in North America.

Among the most significant barriers to employment for people with disabilities is lack of access to education and to formative, work-relevant experiences that help develop skills needed to compete for jobs. To help bridge this gap, a number of organizations, such as IBM Canada, sponsor summer camps and internship programs. Some leading employers and agencies have partnered to develop intensive, job-specific training programs. An example is the 24-week retail associate training program developed and managed for Wal-Mart Canada by the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work. A similar program has been developed for organizations with call centres.

Selection processes
Fair selection processes begin with a clear understanding of the essential duties and expected outcomes of the job. This includes the physical and cognitive requirements as well as working conditions. A job description should focus on responsibilities and expected outcomes, not on how the task is to be accomplished. For instance, if in the course of work, materials or product must be shifted from Station A to Station B, it is important to understand not how the material is moved, but whether it can be moved and what reasonable supports an individual would require to accomplish the necessary outcome. The interview requires a very clear understanding of required job outcomes in order to ensure the right questions are asked.

During the selection process, tools for evaluating candidates should not be treated as screens, but as ways to understand abilities and predict an individual’s likely prospects for success in a defined role. Interview facilities should be accessible, and tests should be available in alternative formats.

Consistency is the watchword. Interview questions, tests and other selection tools should be based on the job description and standardized for all job applicants. This ensures that all applicants are evaluated on the basis of the same criteria. Focus on the potential of the candidate and her specific skills, not on aspects of the disability that are not job-related. Above all, do not make assumptions about what an individual can and cannot do.

Creating an inclusive workplace
Myths and stereotypes about people with disabilities persist, and workplaces mirror the larger world. People with disabilities will tell you that the greatest single barrier they experience is not the disability itself, but attitudinal barriers and misperceptions about their skills and ability to add value in a workplace setting.

Education is a first step in countering stereotypes. Training, while helpful, is not enough to drive and sustain change. Creating a more inclusive culture is an exercise in fundamental change management that begins with a directive at the most senior level, is integrated into the infrastructure and management practices, and monitored for progress toward goals.

Workplace accessibility includes considerations beyond access to buildings. It also applies to the tools we use and the routines we perform in our daily work. Workspace and facility considerations are important. Don’t forget looking at conventions around the conduct of routine meetings and training facilities. When developing accommodations for an individual, there are three management principles to keep in mind:

•Consult with the individual — Listen and ask what the person’s needs are. The person with the disability is in the best position to identify needs and many adjustments can be implemented without incurring major expense simply by listening, problem solving and applying common sense solutions.

•Be flexible — Most jobs can be modified in some way with no sacrifice to output or significant cost.

•Provide supports — There are literally thousands of supportive devices, ranging from low tech to high tech, from simple amplifying or magnification devices to large-keypad keyboards and Web browsers with voice synthesizers.

The benefits to business
Did organizations that demonstrated good practices in fostering inclusive work environments see a payoff? Absolutely. Though it is difficult to quantify, employers reported benefits ranging from simply having a larger talent pool to draw from to improved employee morale and customer-supplier satisfaction. That translates into bottom-line profits.

For example, Oak Run Farm Bakeries in rural Hamilton-Wentworth, Ont. provides fresh-baked goods to major grocery chain and fast food franchises. Though Oak Run does not sell directly to the public, it has found that its practice of hiring people with disabilities has helped make it a supplier of choice for some of its corporate customers.

According to General Manager Tony Tristani, Oak Run has an environment where people care about people, and people, in turn, care about the product. Although attracting business was never the motive for Oak Run’s employment practices, customers notice. “Buyers see what we are doing and they are drawn to us,” he says.

There are a range of strategies and tactics that can be adopted to build more inclusive organizations but there is no single quick-fix solution. After years of fine-tuning screening tools that contributed to exclusion, inclusiveness implies a profound cultural shift. The challenge is to move from policy to practice. The reward is top-quality recruits; it just so happens that some of them will be people with disabilities.

Ruth Wright is senior research associate at the Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for Management Effectiveness. She is author of Tapping the Talents of People with Disabilities: a Guide for Employers, designed to provide employers, managers and human resource practitioners some facts, practical advice and examples of how to facilitate the integration of employees with disabilities into the workplace. She can be reached at (416) 526-3090 ext. 369 or [email protected].

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