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Flipping the script on disability in the workplace

Just six in 10 Canadians with disabilities have jobs. Employers can raise that number, say researchers and BC’s social development minister.
Katie Miller, who has autism, says it can be difficult to shake stigma associated with having a disability. She’s part of a project gathering inclusive labour practices.

Katie Miller knows what it means to be put in a box.

Miller remembers one of her  first jobs in the fast food industry, where she felt stuck cleaning  tables instead of being given a chance at the cash register.

“When it comes to the hiring field, I find  it’s quite difficult to be accepted when you’re labelled. Because  there’s this idea that you’re bringing in this disability,” explained  Miller, who has autism.

Today, Miller is part of a two-year B.C. research project that aims to flip the script on disability in the workplace.

The New Inclusive Economy  is building a blueprint for how to open up B.C. businesses to disabled  workers and create a labour market that works for everyone.

The project, led by Inclusion Powell River,  is collecting inclusive labour practices from employers across the  province with the aim of mapping out how to meet government goals to  increase the employment rate of disabled people, who are statistically  underemployed.

The 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability  found as many as one in five Canadians between the ages of 24 and 64 is  disabled, a broad term that covers many physical, developmental and  psychological conditions and the innumerable personal experiences with  them.

That survey — which takes place every five  years — also showed that 59 per cent of working-age adults with  disabilities were employed, compared to roughly 80 per cent of those  without disabilities.

Professor Rachelle Hole, the co-director of  the University of British Columbia’s Canadian Institute for Inclusion  and Citizenship, chalks that up in part to employers’ hesitancy to hire  disabled workers.

“The supply side really isn’t the issue  when it comes to the employment or working-age adults with disabilities.  It’s really that demand side. When you look at the research literature,  over and over again, the research shows us that employers are  hesitant,” Hole said, adding the reluctance comes from the belief that  any accommodation provided for those workers will be costly.

“The counter-research shows that really  isn’t the case,” Hole said. “It doesn’t cost a lot more money. There are  opportunities through different provincial sector programs to offset if  there are some of those costs. I think it really comes down to  stereotypes and misinformation.”

That’s where the New Inclusive Economy comes in.

Project manager Leni Goggins says the  research project’s ultimate goal isn’t just to offer possible solutions  to underemployment, but to change how employers think about disabilities  in the workplace.

Inclusion Powell River, where Goggins  works, successfully obtained just over $800,000 in funding through a  B.C. government program that aims to help workers and employers respond  to labour market challenges.

“The main barriers to people getting jobs  are not peoples’ disabilities, but the barriers because of their  disabilities. Every time I’m asked by media about this, they ask, ‘What  are the barriers to employment for people with disabilities?’ I’m  continually flipping that,” Goggins said.

“I’m asking, ’What are the barriers  employers are facing in hiring disabled people? Employers… feel unable  to do this. We want to show the enabling conditions that make this  possible so other employers can jump on the bandwagon.” 

Last year, the B.C. government passed legislation giving it powers to create new accessibility regulations around employment and public services.

The Accessible British Columbia Act  legislation requires the province to implement key actions in four  areas, with a focus on cultural change: build a tool to provide feedback  to government; develop a government accessibility plan; establish a  provincial accessibility committee; and develop a set of regulations for  organizations.

B.C. Minister of Social Development and  Poverty Reduction Nicholas Simons, a social worker by training, told The  Tyee there is broad interest from employers in hiring people with  disabilities.

“We know that there is an untapped labour supply if people want to have barriers to employment removed,” he said.

However, Simons believes that accomplishing that will mean shifting the onus to employers.

For example, some people with disabilities  may be well-suited for a job but struggle in a traditional interview  setting. In other cases, physical barriers or workplace design could  prevent someone from being hired.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of  Social Development said about 21,000 people with disabilities accessed  WorkBC employment services and supports in the 2021-22 fiscal year. The  province has also committed to working with interested employers to  facilitate hiring of more disabled workers, particularly in sectors such  as tourism. But Simons says more can be done.

“When we compare ourselves with other  jurisdictions, we see there is work to be done,” Simons said. “As a  social worker, I think qualitative. I think people who want to work and  whose goal is to participate in the workforce… I think anyone who wants  to, should have the opportunity to do it.”

The New Inclusive Economy is not just  pushing for more participation in the labour market. Miller, who has  been a self-advocate for years, says that work also needs to be  meaningful, while giving workers the opportunity to learn new skills and  advance.

“I like the word inclusive, but you can  also have people be inclusive as in, ‘We’ll hire you because you have a  disability and you can be part of this economy, but we won’t teach you  cash, we won’t teach you cooking,’” Miller said.

She refers again to that first job at a fast food restaurant.

“Most people can clean a table. But it  takes real skill and knowledge to go out there and face your fears on a  cash register, knowing there’s the possibility for mistakes and  accepting the fact that those mistakes are going to improve you as a  person,” Miller said.

Miller is also careful to note that no two disabled people are alike.

“Every intellectual disability is different  based on the individual, not as the label of the disability. Just  because I identify with autism and these are my experiences, someone  else with autism will have a different experience than me,” Miller said.

What they do share, she adds, is a challenge overcoming the label that is sometimes attached to that word.

“My experience with [autism] is that people  look at you a certain way and make their own assumptions based on a  physical appearance. Then they start to think of you in terms of your  way of thinking. Then they see you as a person. It should be person  first,” Miller said. 

Goggins says this concept is at the root of  the New Inclusive Economy — the seeds of which were planted years ago  when Inclusion Powell River opened a social enterprise designed for  workers with developmental disabilities. The society obtained an  exemption from the B.C. government so workers receiving disability  payments could keep that cash on top of their salaries. What they found,  she says, was that workers who had been on the brink of poverty had  money to afford better transportation, to give and support family  members, and to fully participate in the local economy.

In the end, the enterprise, Goggins says,  was not economically viable, but showed the ripple effect of economic  participation went well beyond a worker’s bank account.

Goggins says the New Inclusive Economy is  now seeking employers who consider themselves inclusive to let the  research team know what practices from their workplaces could be adapted  provincewide.