Mayor’s challenge: Hire people with disabilities

Advocates tout benefits of skilled group such as lower turnover, absenteeism

Mike Bradley, the mayor of Sarnia, Ont., isn’t in charge of recruitment but he knows he has a lot of influence in the community of 72,000 people in southwestern Ontario when it comes to setting a good example.

“Mayors do not control hiring but we do create the culture within a city, a community as it relates to hiring,” he said. “Mayors don’t hire but, if they’re true leaders, they certainly have influence on their city hall and on the community.”

Long a supporter of hiring people with a disability, Bradley decided to boost his efforts in January 2010 when he laid down the gauntlet and sent a challenge to other Ontario mayors: Do the right thing and hire persons with a disability.

And these days, Bradley often calls mayors and meets with them to discuss the issue and encourage their support, with additional help from David Onley, lieutenant-governor of Ontario.

“It’s so easy not to do anything,” said Bradley. “I believe in the ‘fierce urgency of now.’ You can always wait for a better economy, you can always wait for something else to change, you can always wait for new legislation. Too many communities are treating (hiring workers with disabilities) like drinking castor oil — they’re not seeing it as an opportunity for private sector, public sector and for basic human rights for people.”

The key is having a city manager and HR director who get it, said Bradley. The City of Sarnia, for example, has two strong advocates who contact other HR people and allay them of any concerns, such as union objections to hiring people with disabilities.

“It’s only in the last few weeks we’ve really recognized the HR director is a key component in making this work,” he said. “They can be the group that raises the barriers.”

For the summer of 2011, there will be about 12 or 14 summer students with intellectual disabilities working for the City of Sarnia. And within the community, other departments are embracing the trend, such as fire services, which is hiring four to six students, said Bradley.

“This country, this province — we all know we’re going to have a skilled trade shortage and we widely talk about newcomers, more immigrants, but we have a pool of workers here that are there and ready to work and just need the opportunity,” he said.

Bradley’s challenge has been accepted by several other mayors in Ontario. The initiative is simple but effective and his work is unprecedented, said Mark Wafer, who owns six Tim Hortons franchises in Toronto and is an advocate for hiring people with disabilities (see sidebar).

“The largest employer in many Ontario towns and cities is the city or municipality itself and Mayor Bradley’s calls to other mayors challenging them to hire people with disabilities enjoys tremendous success,” he said. “It’s similar to using the business model where business speaks to business — everyone likes to hear from their own peers and everyone trusts comments from their peers and this is why mayors appreciate hearing of Mayor Bradley’s success.”

The mayor has partnered with Community Living Ontario, a non-profit association that advocates for people with intellectual disabilities to be fully included in all aspects of community life. All of the employers that were assisted by Community Living in hiring 78 students with disabilities in the summer of 2010 are keen to do so again in 2011, said Bob Vansickle, manager of community employment at Community Living Sarnia-Lambton and board co-chair of the Ontario Disability Employment Network.

And Community Living hopes to see more hiring on a permanent basis, he said.

“We have extremely low turnover with any of the persons with disabilities that have been hired,” he said, adding employers are so pleased, they come back to the well. “Those companies that have figured it out, they’re ahead of the curve.”

In a lot of cases, people are scared to hire persons with disabilities because they’re worried they won’t be able to do the job or there will be huge accommodation costs, said Vansickle. But many people with disabilities don’t require any form of accommodation and, if they do, it’s usually less than $500.

Many employers, and HR in particular, are keen to hire from this group but they’re not sure how to go about it, said Vansickle. If they partner with a reliable community agency or service provider that can screen for good candidates, they will also receive the supports and services they might need.

“They get to know the employer’s needs,” he said. “It’s all about a really good job match.”

People with disabilities make up the largest minority group in Canada, at 16.5 per cent, said Vansickle. And Canada simply doesn’t have the skilled workforce to fill future jobs, which is going to be a huge problem.

“That’s why the government is going crazy pumping millions and millions of dollars into trying to bring newcomers into Canada. But the interesting thing is we’ve got all these people under our noses who have disabilities… It’s just a huge, untapped source.”

Workers with disabilities 

Tim Hortons franchisor serves jobs

Sixteen years ago, Mark Wafer hired an employee with an intellectual disability. As of 2011, the owner of six Tim Hortons stores in Toronto has 28 workers with intellectual disabilities and his stores see a turnover rate of 35 per cent compared to an industry average of 80 per cent.

“This is not because I am a better operator, it is simply because we have created an inclusive workplace where people with disabilities are treated as equals,” said Wafer, who is partly deaf.

The average tenure of an employee is one year and four months but for a worker with a disability, it’s seven years, he said.

“It takes so long for a person with a disability to find a job that they are very reluctant to look at greener pastures because the risk is too high.”

There are about 1.85 million people living with disabilities in Ontario and one-half of them are unemployed, according to the provincial government. This number does not include those who are off the grid, so the real number of unemployed could be as high as 70 per cent, said Wafer. And the numbers have not changed in the past 30 years, despite the fact awareness is at an all-time high and legislation has been created to help in this area.

“This is all because business owners, hiring managers and human resource managers all buy into a series of myths and misconceptions,” he said. “Myths such as people with disabilities will work slower, be sick more often, show up late, work in a less safe manner or that accommodations will cost too much. The fact is these myths and misconceptions are simply that — myths and misconceptions.”

Wafer has become an advocate, encouraging other companies to hire people with disabilities. He works to educate employers and change mindsets by using a business model to show the benefits of hiring people with disabilities.

“Telling owners to hire a person with a disability, that it is the right thing to do, simply doesn’t work,” said Wafer. “We have to show them how they will benefit and how their company will be stronger, be more profitable, have higher staff morale.”

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