It’s a Good Thing: Craig Richmond makes the economic case for accessibility and inclusivity

It just makes good business sense, according to the president and CEO of YVR.

YVR created a staff program that simulates disabilities

It just makes good business sense, according to the president and CEO of YVR

Discrimination against persons with disabilities has been outlawed by Canada’s Human Rights Act since 1985. Over the past three decades, attitudes and laws have continued to progress—with a new British Columbia Accessibility Act, coming into effect this fall, enshrining the right to barrier-free employment.

While often framed in terms of rights, accessibility is also a pressing economic issue, according to Craig Richmond, president and CEO of the Vancouver Airport Authority and co-chair of the Presidents Group, a network of B.C. businesses championing accessible workplaces. “Given that everybody’s in a hiring crunch right now, we all need to think about hiring somebody with a disability,” argues Richmond in a May interview, pointing to B.C.’s record-low 4.3-percent unemployment rate. “You take somebody off disability/welfare and put them into a job—society wins, the person wins, and it just takes a little extra effort.”

Launched in 2013, the Presidents Group counts YVR, Telus and Vancity among its 23 members. It’s modelled after a similar program in the U.K., the Business Disability Forum, which for more than 20 years has brought together business leaders to develop best practice guides and set targets for building “disability-smart” companies. “They said, if we want to get more people jobs, then we have to go to the decision-makers in companies—the people who control the purse strings and set priorities,” Richmond explains.

The business case for greater inclusion is compelling. A 2017 study by Deloitte shows that diverse and inclusive workplaces are two times more likely to meet or exceed financial targets, six times more likely to be innovative and six times more likely to effectively anticipate change. But to succeed in boosting disabled participation rates (about 20 percent lower than for the overall workforce), Richmond and others realize that it’s not enough to have just the big employers on board; you also need buy-in from smaller enterprises that don’t have a dedicated diversity or inclusion officer.

Last year, the Presidents Group launched the Community of Accessible Employers initiative to encourage all B.C. businesses—big and small—to find ways of eliminating barriers to full employment. Companies can access a wealth of resources, tools and training programs through its website  plus various events and networking opportunities.

The primary concern raised by small employers, says Richmond, remains financial: “They might say, Oh, I’m really afraid of what it will cost to outfit a desk for a person who has vision issues or mobility issues. But we find it costs in the order of $1,000 to $1,500—for an employee who is three times as likely to stay with you.” He notes that there are also federal and provincial programs available to subsidize the cost of modifying workspaces.

Beyond adapting physical spaces, there’s the challenge of adapting an organization’s culture to ensure that it’s welcoming and tolerant for potential employees. To that end, YVR has a program called Ramping Minds, where airport staff go through a half-day of training in a wheelchair and/or goggles to simulate various types of disabilities. Richmond says about 80 percent of the airport’s 500 employees have completed the program so far: “It really puts into your head why accessibility, in everything we do, is so important.”

This fall, the Presidents Group will roll out specific targets for disabled representation within its member organizations. The goal at YVR is to get to 5 percent self-declared persons with disabilities—currently, it’s 2.8 percent—in a province where about 15 percent of residents over 15 years of age self-identify as having some disability, according to Statistics Canada. “We have a little ways to go, but we’re moving toward that target,” Richmond says. “And I think by publicly saying, ‘Hey, here’s where we’re going…’ It’s the old adage: that which is measured improves.”

The Interview: What not to ask

One of the biggest obstacles to employment for disabled people is the job search itself–especially barriers thrown up during an interview. Although applicants must be able to meet employer requirements and perform essential functions, hiring managers have to take care how they approach a prospective candidate. Here are some questions that can’t be asked:

• Have you ever been treated for any mental condition?

• Do you have any disabilities or impairments that might affect your ability to do the job?

• Will you need to take leave for medical or disability related reasons?

• Have you ever been hospitalized? For what?

• Do you suffer from any health-related condition that might prevent you from performing?

• Have you ever filed a worker’s compensation claim?

• Why do you use a wheelchair?

• Have you ever been treated by a psychologist or psychiatrist? If so, for what?

Source: The Presidents Group, adapted from and University of Wisconsin–Madison Office for Equity and Diversity