How employers can make better use of employees with disabilities

Employees with disabilities | BCBusiness

British Columbians with disabilities represent a hugely loyal, largely untapped part of the labour market

Most of us go to work every day secure in the knowledge that skills and personality will determine our employment success. But for some 330,000 British Columbians, there’s an added challenge: convincing employers to look beyond a disability.

Attitudes toward people with disabilities have improved a lot in the past few years, according to Faith Bondar, executive director of Inclusion B.C., an organization that advocates for the rights of people with developmental disabilities. But Bondar argues that to translate those attitudes into higher employment rates, higher profile is required: “It’s a vastly untapped part of our labour market, and what we want to do here in B.C. is open the doors to employers who aren’t currently employing them.”

With only three out of 10 small businesses nationwide hiring someone with a disability, according to a BMO 2013 survey, and a B.C. unemployment rate for people with disabilities 18 points higher than the provincial average, there is plenty of room for improvement. As Bondar notes, “These are people with talents and capacities and contributions to make, and at a fiscal level and a growth level we need to make sure we capitalize on them—it’s a loss for us not to.”

To address the problem, the provincial government unveiled Accessibility 2024 in June, a 10-year strategy to make B.C. the most progressive place in Canada for people with disabilities. Among the advantages cited by the government in hiring such employees: they’re five times more likely to stay on the job than able-bodied employees. A 2013 report by the federal government’s Panel on Labour Market Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities also found that employees with disabilities rated average or better in comparison to their co-workers 95 per cent of the time on work safety, 86 per cent on attendance and 90 per cent on job performance.

While some small-business owners express concern about the perceived challenges in hiring a person with disabilities, the reality is that most, if not all, of those obstacles don’t exist. As the federal government’s panel report put it: “Stop thinking charity, avoid wage subsidies, don’t wait for the perfect position as it doesn’t exist, think ‘outside the elevator,’ since only six per cent of the people with disabilities actually use a wheelchair or scooter, and stop thinking that you’re not ready.’”

One of the big myths is that you can’t fire or discipline an employee with a disability. As Melanie Hardy, associate director of the YWCA WorkBC Westside Employment Services Centre, puts it: “Employees with disabilities fall under the same laws as everyone else.” Another myth is the perception that hiring an employee with a disability will cost a lot. The BMO survey, however, found that the average cost to employers for accommodations in the workplace was $500 or less. Hardy says that when accommodations are actually needed, they are frequently minor, such as schedule changes or changes in job duties. And if there is any cost involved, she says, “WorkBC staff can help businesses to defray those expenses.”

Doing the right thing is definitely a nice side benefit to hiring a disabled person, says Faith Bondar, but ultimately it’s “not sustainable nor a good way to get a job.” She argues that the move toward a more inclusive workplace is actually just good business: “I think we’ve moved from that charity, pity model to an empowerment model—one that says that all people have something to offer.”