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Empowerment Through Disclosure: Breaking Down Barriers To Employment For People With Disabilities

December 3rd has been designated by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 47/3 (1992) as International Day of People with Disabilities. The purpose for recognizing this day is to raise awareness, understanding and support for the dignity, rights, well being and inclusion of people with disabilities who, according to recent demographic and economic statistics, constitute 10% (roughly 650 million people) of the total population.

As “the world’s largest minority”, people with disabilities face multiple barriers in accessing education, employment, health care, transportation, social or political participation and justice.  These barriers to societal participation include but are not limited to the physical environment; information and communications technology; legislation or policy; as well as societal attitudes and discrimination. IDPWD’s year’s theme is “Inclusion Matters: Access and Empowerment for People of All Abilities”. Its focus is on promoting empowerment through real opportunities that enhance the capabilities of persons with disabilities, thereby making them more effective agents of change.

As career and work practitioners, we can empower job seekers with disabilities by helping them overcome barriers to employment throughout the job search and job retention process.  In her article, “Disabled Still Face Work Barriers” (December 9, 2013, Benefits Canada), Yaldaz Sadakova cited that exclusionary practices continue to exist even at the application stage of the job search process. As indicated in a 2013 BMO Financial Group survey, only 3 in 10 small business owners in Canada hired persons with disabilities. Common obstacles to accessing the job market include:

  • online-only applications, phone screening and the use of interviews to select candidates;
  • inflexible job requirements and discriminatory prerequisites such as “must have driver’s licence and car”;
  • prejudicial assumptions about lack of skill, absenteeism and accommodation or insurance costs; as well as
  • lack of disability awareness and sensitivity training for coworkers and management.

On the flip side of the disability coin, Employment and Social Development Canada produced a report in 2013 entitled, Rethinking DisAbility in the Private Sector – Report from the Panel on Labour Market Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities. This panel report addressed two issues; namely, successes and best practices in hiring people with disabilities and the barriers faced by employers. The following is a summary of the key findings in this report:

  • While most of the Canadian private sector employers were genuinely interested in hiring candidates with disabilities, more education and training was needed to remove barriers, challenge myths and move beyond theory to practical application.
  • There is a strong business case for hiring people with disabilities, with positive correlations among an inclusive work environment, employee retention and productivity, plus corporate performance on the capital markets. In 57% of cases, no workplace accommodation was required and in 37% of cases, all that was needed was a one-time accommodation cost averaging $500.00.
  • Leadership and effective community partnerships are the keys to successful employment of people with disabilities. Engaging community partners who have a good comprehension of the employer’s human resource needs as well as a commitment to customer service is essential.

Recognizing the probability of increased demand for accommodations as the workforce ages, panel participants recommended the following best practices:

  • a flexible, proactive and open process consisting of employee-focused accommodation solutions in which the worker is closely involved in defining their needs;
  • including the accommodation needs of able bodied workers in the overall process;
  • versatile solutions such as work sharing; mobile or remote work; permission for an applicant or employee to complete tests at home; modified duties and/or work hours; transfer of an employee with an acquired disability to another position with altered responsibilities; and formation of a position of value to the company.

Business owners reported the following barriers they encountered when trying to promote inclusivity and equal opportunity for persons with disabilities:

  • The lack of a disability advocate to raise awareness, overcome obstacles and develop paths to employment. Although many employers have policies and protocols on accommodating staff who acquire disabilities on the job, few businesses were able to implement this knowledge into the recruitment process given the lack of a clear, straightforward approach to identifying qualified candidates. Liaison between employers and community partners is required before vacancies arise because employers have limited time to identify and interview suitable applicants.
  • Exclusionary recruiting processes such as inaccessibly designed websites or screening and selection software, preventing initial access by employers to qualified candidates with disabilities. Furthermore, misperceptions about disability can lead to erroneous disqualification when comparing applicants’ limitations with genuine job requirements.
  • The challenge in providing accommodations to employees with mental illness, given that workers are often reluctant to self identify because of the stigma associated with the invisible disability, which tends to result in misunderstanding and feelings of discomfort in coworkers.
  • Weighing the risk of workplace accommodations in light of occupational health and safety standards, as well as fear of legal accountability with respect to human rights, performance monitoring and discipline. This has led to a tendency to transfer injured workers in physically demanding jobs to administrative and customer service positions.

The underlying message in all these studies is that employers and businesses would like guidance and assistance from employment service providers and other community partners to help put existing policies into action.  This requires relationship based marketing with a business and diagnostic approach to determine the potential employer’s needs or challenges and offer solutions.  Some concrete ways to connect with potential employers may include:

  • outreach to small, medium and large size businesses in diverse industries and sectors;
  • attendance and delivery of presentations at various business networking and business membership organizations such as JOIN, Business Takes Action (Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters) and Canadian Chamber of Commerce;
  • forming partnerships and alliances with local businesses and industry sectors;
  • conducting and inviting recruiters to job fairs; and
  • establishing an on-line registry for equal opportunity employers who can outline their needs and alert service providers to positions that become available.

Let’s work together to make the International Day of People with Disabilities theme a reality.

Profile photo of Denise Feltham
Denise Feltham
Designer of D.I.C.E. (Disability Impact on Career/Employment). Owner/Operator of D.I.C.E. Assessment & Employment Counselling Services Bachelor of Social Work Degree (Ryerson University). Career & Work Counsellor Diploma (George Brown College) Life Skills Coach Certification (Levels I & II) - YWCA

2 Comments

  1. December 1, 2015, 12:51 pm   / 

    I would also underscore the importance of people with disabilities playing a leadership role and encouraging non disabled career service workers acting as allies in advocacy and education.

  2. December 2, 2015, 11:06 am   / 

    Excellent points, Neasa: people with disabilities can provide leadership based on experiential knowledge and understanding of their type of disability. At the same time, non disabled career practitioner allies in advocacy and education must be included, not excluded because of lack of experiential knowledge of the issues. This breaks down the “us/them” divide.

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