Exploring Disability Confidence with Employers

By: Karen Lai, Accessibility & Inclusion Consultant and Susanna Gurr, Managing Director BC Centre for Employment Excellence

ability over disabilitySeptember marks Disability Employment Month in British Columbia, an opportunity to highlight people with disabilities in the workforce. It is also an opportunity to celebrate businesses that have opened their doors widely to create and foster inclusive workplaces. Their leadership shows that it is more than just a feel good policy; the possibilities and profitability of inclusive workplaces are, in fact, a solid business decision.

The message was clear at the 2016 Untapped Series: an aging population is one of several factors adding pressure to the labour market. Baby boomers are retiring and fewer young people are entering the workforce. As some industry sectors and professions continue to grow, tapping into “underutilized talent pools” is emerging as a tool for BC businesses if our province is to remain competitive and be among Canada’s leaders in economic growth in the coming decade.

One in ten working age Canadians (aged 15-64) self-reported having a disability in 2012 according to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Survey on Disability. The employment rate in BC for people with disabilities is 59.1% compared to 74.3% for people without disabilities. There are sizeable differences in earnings and income between people with and without disabilities.¹ Breaking barriers for people with disabilities to employment opportunities has been and continues to be challenging. So how can employers tap into the tremendous talent pool that exists in the disability community? What can be done to move from this stagnant condition?

Businesses are a critical component to increasing the employment participation rate of people with disabilities. However, many businesses are still not hiring people with disabilities. According to a survey from the BMO Financial Group, three in 10 small business owners hired people with disabilities in 2013. But for those businesses that do, many reported that hires with disabilities have met or exceeded their expectations. What sets these businesses apart? They are disability confident companies.

What is a disability confident company?

Disability confident companies think about the needs of people with disabilities when creating employment opportunities, designing products and services, while implementing policies and practices that ensure people with disabilities are included. A disability confident company gains a competitive edge in the labour market because they have a wider pool of job applicants to choose from. The untapped, overlooked, and often underutilized talent pool of people with disabilities, brings a range of skills, talents, abilities and enthusiasm to a workforce. A disability confident company’s inclusive workforce has the potential to deliver services more efficiently, access a wider market, and enhance a corporate image that reflects the diversity of their community.

Walgreens is the second-largest American pharmaceutical chain in the US and an example of a successful disability confident business. They are recognized as a pioneer in hiring people with disabilities. Walgreens demonstrated that a focused, concerted effort on increasing the employment of people with disabilities at their distribution centres strengthened their workforce, enhanced productivity and performance, and improved their bottom line.

With support from the Vancouver Foundation, we interviewed six businesses in Metro Vancouver that shows characteristics of a disability confident business. While each business acknowledges that they still have a lot to do, they have clearly moved from intent to action. The actions that these businesses take will have the most impact on establishing exceptional, inclusive workplaces. We showcase the six disability confident employers below.

trauma techTrauma Tech is a small business that provides high quality first aid training and has established itself as a leading first aid school in Metro Vancouver. They initially hired one employee and then added two more employees who each play a key role in preparing materials for training courses. With the support of a service provider, Trauma Tech incorporated flexibility when employing people with disabilities, maximizing the benefits for both the business and the individuals.

timmsThe owners of the Tim Hortons at Davie and Granville in Downtown Vancouver have two principles for all of their employees: make money and have fun while working. These are no different for employees with or without a disability. While they may say “it is the right thing to do” to open employment opportunities to people with disabilities, they focus on collaboration to find out what works well with each individual. They prove that thinking creatively and working collaboratively with employees with disabilities benefit both Tim Hortons’ employees and owners.

justworkJustWork Economic Initiative started at a local church. It is an umbrella group to three different social enterprises that support its mandate, which is to offer dignified, meaningful work opportunities to people facing barriers to work. They honour the mental health challenges of their employees by implementing a “back-up” system, which draws on a pool of on-call staff members, in case employees don’t show up for work for mental health reasons. This ensures the high quality of standards to which their business clients are accustomed.

baciBurnaby Association of Community Inclusion (BACI) is a non-profit organization that provides a wide range of services to children, youth and adults with developmental disabilities and their families in Metro Vancouver. These services include training, development, social, recreational, and employment opportunities. In order to make sure they walk the talk, BACI set a target of staffing 10% of their positions with people with disabilities, which represents 50 positions of their 500-person organization. While they may tell you they missed the mark, we would say that it is only by a slim margin; nine percent of their workforce, or 45 of their employees, have disabilities.

pacboltPacific Bolt is one of the largest bolt manufacturers in Western Canada. They demonstrated that an inclusive workforce can happen organically. While they had no systems in place, they worked closely with a service agency to look at different recruitment strategies, which have enabled them to develop strategies to foster the diversity of their workforce. One such strategy was to alter their interview format to accommodate individuals who prefer to demonstrate their skills hands-on.

vancitytVancity is no stranger to success as a diversity champion. In 2014, Vancity set a goal of having 4.5% of their workforce comprised of employees with disabilities. At 10.6%, they exceeded their goal by a substantial margin. They have a Diversity and Inclusion Alliance, which looks at diversity issues impacting employees and members, makes recommendations as to how to remove barriers and encourages informal discussion about a variety of diversity topics. In addition, Vancity has also begun piloting a variety of disability employment programs. We believe these initiative helps Vancity to continue to evolve and improve on their inclusive workplace policy. Tamara Vrooman, CEO and President of Vancity, emphasizes that change making innovation takes place at all levels within an organization, most especially at the senior management level where leaders must address unconscious biases to truly change an organization.

What strategies do these businesses have in place to be inclusively minded?

When we asked the above businesses about strategies they have implemented to be inclusively minded, they provided some important advice for creating a successful, inclusive workplace.

Shift the mindset. Each of the companies incorporated an attitude of creating a welcoming and open-minded workplace. Once this happens, everything else follows, including trying new and non-traditional approaches to hiring and retaining talent. It leads to “thinking outside the box” ways to identify a win-win solution for the company.

Partnership with a service agency. Most of the companies we interviewed expressed the importance and value of their partnership with an employment service agency, which helped them access the underutilized talent pool of people with disabilities. They mentioned that service agencies can pre-screen candidates and provide advice, support or ideas to help employers incorporate people with disabilities in their workforce. Service providers are a key support for employers to access tools and resources that prepare businesses to hire people with disabilities. This is an important first step for businesses who are unsure of where to start in moving towards an inclusive workplace.

Establish a Diversity and Inclusion Alliance Committee. Although this may not be easy to implement in smaller businesses, some larger businesses have set up specialized committees to focus on the development of diversity and inclusion strategies and policies, such as removing barriers to employment and proposing diversity statements. For instance, BACI formed an Employee Wellness Committee, addressing issues of treating people respectfully and becoming knowledgeable in workplace accommodations so that staff can feel better supported. Another example is Vancity’s Diversity and Inclusion Alliance Committee that looks at removing barriers and providing accommodations for all employees.

An Inclusive Workforce can happen creatively. A recurring theme with our disability confident businesses is their strong desire to be inclusively minded and their ability to find the right fit for employees with disabilities. Together, the company and the individual can work to explore meaningful ways to contribute to the workplace.

Setting employment targets for employees with disabilities. Being intentional about hiring people with disabilities can help enhance and/or accelerate the effort to increase the employment of people with disabilities. BACI and Vancity have both set targets for measuring their progress in this regard.

What are your next steps?

In sharing the above approaches and practices from the six employers, the aim is to raise awareness about what can be done to create a more inclusive workplace. In doing so, other employers may discover and adopt practices that have worked well elsewhere and take steps to create and grow inclusive workplaces or simply be inclusively minded.

Once the desire is present at the executive level, building an inclusive workforce can happen creatively and organically. Hiring a diverse workforce is not just about opening the door; it is about widening it to ensure that it is as accessible as possible to draw in a diverse pool of talent.

During Disability Employment Month in September, let’s celebrate change-making businesses that are creating opportunities for traditionally overlooked talent pools and contributing to the communities they serve.

What is your experience with employers that are disability confident? What about those employers that are not quite there yet but on their way? Please post a comment below; we would love to hear from you!


¹ BCStats (2009). Labour Market Outcomes of Person with Disabilities in British Columbia, June 2009. Retrieved at: http://www.vibrantabbotsford.ca/files/3313/6587/9575/BC_Stats_-_2009_-_Labour_Market_Outcomes_of_Persons_with_Disabilities_in_British_Columbia_2009.pdf

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