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Ready, willing and able

By Diane Peters

People with physical or intellectual disabilities are shining in the workplace. Here’s how your business can benefit from hiring differently abled folks.

Tracy Brennan has spina bifida and walks with a cane, but her condition hasn’t held her back professionally. The accountant and EY’s managing partner of central Canada assurance services based in Toronto also serves as the co-chair of the company’s AccessAbilities steering committee for the Americas. “I’ve always been given opportunities to demonstrate my abilities and I wanted others who have disabilities to feel the way I feel.” The committee is involved in two US-based projects that have hired people with autism spectrum disorder, it’s developing sensitive approaches to enable self-identification of invisible disabilities and it’s working to add closed-captioning to workplace events.

Assumptions and systems often keep people with disabilities — mobility related, visual or hearing impairment, and also brain differences such as autism and intellectual disabilities — out of the workplace, underemployed or prevented from thriving on the job. Of the 14% of Canadians who have a disability, about 795,000 are not working but are capable of employment, and about half of these people have post-secondary education. The stats are most dramatic for the so-called neuroatypical (the folks who have autism spectrum disorders, for example): the unemployment rate is a whopping 80%.

The thing is, companies that hire people with different abilities find these employees are among their top performers. “They are highly motivated because they have to be,” says Mark Wafer, a former Tim Hortons franchisee who hired hundreds of employees with disabilities. He now advocates for people with disabilities in all aspects of their lives, including work, and acts as a mentor to corporations that wish to become disability confident, as he’s deaf. He says there’s a clear and compelling business case for bringing on workers with disabilities and supporting them on the job. Many make great staff members — Wafer’s first hire of a person with a disability soon became his hardest worker — they often bring unique skills to the workplace and customers often like interacting with them.

If your company has struggled with welcoming employees with disabilities and aims to embrace a wider definition of diversity, here’s how to get these impressive employees on your payroll.

The many benefits of employees with disabilities

In the more than 25 years he ran his Tim Hortons, Wafer hired about 200 people with disabilities — including an employee with autism who was non-verbal — for a variety of jobs, including management positions. He found these hires generally had the lowest absentee rate and the highest productivity of all his employees. While many had struggled to get and keep jobs in the past, once they found an employer who appreciated them, they doubled down. He had the same experience himself. “Through my teen years I lost every job I had,” he says, because of assumptions about his deafness. Later, when Wafer landed a gig working in a car dealership, he arrived first in the morning and was the last to leave at the end of the day. Eventually he proved himself to his boss.

Staffers like Wafer’s first employee who had a disability, Clint, can set the pace. Never missed a day of work and he always kept the dining area immaculate. He loved his uniform so much that Wafer changed the rules so Clint could wear it on his bus ride to work. Wafer quickly found that Clint’s colleagues couldn’t help but hunker down when they worked alongside him — his dedication rubbed off on his peers. Dedicated staffers like him helped keep Wafer’s store staff turnover rate at 38% in an industry that’s typically more than 100% on average.

Calgary’s Meticulon hires employees with autism to do quality-assurance software work such as debugging code. With the right training, CEO Garth Johnson has found these team members outperform neurotypical people. “You and I start filling in the blanks and see what should be there as opposed to what is there. They don’t. They’re just as accurate at 5 p.m. as they are at 9 a.m.” Some of his staffers have near-photographic memories and others thrive on doing repetitive tasks all day.

Wafer noticed there was a softer benefit of hiring these folks: clients truly appreciated the diversity. “What we found was that customers wanted to visit stores that were part of the fabric of the community,” he says. They’d pass other stores to visit the one where a person with a disability worked and they’d often opt for the lineup with the deaf cashier, even if it was a longer line. Direct interaction with such employees, or hearing about them thriving at work, reflects well on the organization. “We can talk about valuing people for what they can contribute,” says Brennan. “This means we value people with all backgrounds and all perspectives.”

How to tweak your hiring to include differently abled folks

“The No. 1 barrier today is stereotypes,” says Wafer. When an employer assumes an applicant can’t do a job, his or her resumé ends up in the garbage. Johnson says employers should see those with disabilities not as a challenge, but as a benefit. “We have to stop thinking about these people as a social problem. We have a labour shortage. We have people who are talented. There’s a disconnect.”

To hire his team, Johnson developed an assessment system that measures skills and potential. He ditched the kind of typical interview questions that ask, Why should we hire you and not someone else? He found candidates who were differently abled would answer that figuratively, saying it’s an unfair question unless they could take a look at the other resumés Johnson was considering. He also tends to ignore employment history since, of the hundreds of people he’s screened over the years, many had advanced degrees but almost none had experience related to their training.

Wafer often got involved personally when hiring someone who self-identified as having a disability. “I would modify my interview,” he says. It usually meant simply having a conversation with that person to find out the ways he or she would be successful getting tasks done. People with a disability almost always have their own workaround to doing a job — all you have to do is ask what it is.

Making it work

A 2013 report called Rethinking Disability in the Private Sector issued by the federal Panel on Labour Market Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities revealed that while many employers worry about workplace accommodation, 57% of employees with disabilities didn’t require adjustments on the job. While 37% did need accommodation with a price tag, the average cost was $500. Wafer says he often paid a minimal $200 for extra training. As for accommodations, this can be as simple as a deaf employee not being required to answer the main phone in a retail environment (though special phones are affordable). Brennan recalls an intern in a wheelchair working in an older office without automatic doors. A colleague would always be around to open the door for her. For the accounting profession, reasonably priced hardware and so ware enable a wide range of work for those who are deaf, visually impaired or who have limited use of their hands.

Years ago, Johnson worked with a talented tech employee who he now suspects may be on the autism spectrum. The young man became unhappy at work and threatened to quit. The employee finally revealed that the big staff pizza party and motivational session the company held on Fridays was a nightmare for him. Johnson simply excused him from the gatherings and he happily stayed on at the company.

For Johnson, these subtle accommodations are akin to making the workplace welcoming for newcomers to Canada. “People have different norms, but they’re not wrong.” Indeed, when you embrace people’s limitations and let the workplace shift a little, there are no longer limitations. There are just differences that don’t get in the way of work — they actually make it more compassionate, intelligent and valuable.

This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of CPA Magazine.