Staff with disabilities act as teachers

Report looks at bank employees

Michael Edgson has seen a shift in perceptions of disability and accommodation over his career. Edgson, who is visually impaired but still has some sight, is currently a branch manager at two Royal Bank of Canada branches in Richmond, B.C.

The bank’s willingness and proactive approach to accommodation is in sharp contrast to the sit-back-and-wait approach he experienced 15 years ago when he worked for the provincial and federal governments. He chalks up the difference as much to the passage of time as to the difference in employers.

But what he has really noticed at the bank is his co-workers’ curiosity and willingness to learn about his disability and he’s more than happy to answer any questions they have.

“When given the opportunity, I’m happy to say, ‘Come on in and I’ll show you what I’m doing,’” he said.

This kind of informal awareness building is quite common among employees with disabilities at RBC, according to a new report released by RBC and Toronto’s Ryerson University.

The report Doing Disability at the Bank: Discovering the Work of Learning/Teaching Done by Disabled Bank Employees is based on interviews with employees with disabilities, co-workers and managers of people with disabilities (75 employees in all).

It discovered a number of activities people with disabilities perform on a regular basis in order to navigate the workplace, one of which is informal teaching.

With many co-workers and managers unaware of disability issues and how they affect individuals, employees with disabilities have found themselves continuously teaching colleagues how to relate to them and about broader disability issues.

The report also revealed the hidden, or invisible, learning done by employees with disabilities on a daily basis, said Kathryn Church, an associate professor with Ryerson University’s school of disability studies and one of the report’s lead researchers.

“What began to emerge for us was not just job skills and job training but the cultural and social work people are doing in order to make their particular job work for them,” said Church.

Along with informal teaching, other daily activities or strategies used by employees with disabilities include: making jokes, even at their own expense, to ease the discomfort others might feel about their disability; building a web of support that includes co-workers with various areas of expertise; developing short cuts and taking work home in order to meet the demands of their jobs; and hiding their disability.

This last finding was perhaps the most surprising, and disappointing, for Church.

“It’s a bit of a shock for me that we are still talking to people with disabilities (about) the work they are doing around hiding,” she says.

Employees with disabilities want to be recognized for their contributions and skills, not their disability or the accommodations they need. All the work that goes into concealing the disability can almost become a second job and can be an elaborate “choreography of invisible micro-decisions within each transactional workplace moment,” states the report.

For example, some employees will use the invisibility of phone and e-mail to establish “able-bodied virtual identities.”

The report’s findings have provided RBC with tangible information that can be turned into concrete action, said Norma Tombari, senior manager of diversity and workforce solutions at RBC.

“It will not become a report that sits on a shelf,” she said.

The bank recently launched an employee resource group for people with disabilities called REACH (RBC employees for abilities career and heart).

The group is open to all employees who have an interest in the opportunities and challenges faced by individuals with disabilities. This is just the kind of initiative Church hopes other employers will take on once they read the report.

The researchers found mentoring relationships are also extremely important for employees with disabilities and Church would like to see more employers institute mentorship programs.

“Most of the people who were successful in their jobs had had excellent mentors in the workplace,” she said.

These kinds of programs and initiatives don’t just benefit employees with disabilities — all employees can benefit from them, said Church.

“If you get your corporation working well for its disabled employees, you’ve got a corporation that’s really working for everybody,” she said.

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