Accessible Hiring: Right Idea; Historically Wrong Approach

An image of the Digital Echidna logo, done in a colour contrast style.

Today marks the end of Disability Employment Awareness Month. And as much as Digital Echidna as a company and I, individually, are strongly involved in accessibility issues, I haven't spoken much about this issue to date.

Why? Because while employment remains one of the greatest challenges for those with disabilities, the solutions and dialogue often miss the point.

As a member of both the Ability First Coalition and the Province of Ontario's employer's partnership table on accessible employment, I have a bit of a history with this topic. Ultimately, I think many people want to do the right thing -- but, often, it's the wrong approach. And when it comes to hiring people with disabilities, the focus needs to shift from the person's disability to the person's ability.


This one's always tough -- how do you define tokenism? There are companies that will hire a person with a disability for a customer-facing role. And as long as it's because the person is the best candidate for the job, that's great. But if someone is put in a public-facing role, solely for the purpose of "showing" that a company hired people with disabilities, then is that really any better?

The focus should be on showcasing the person's skills -- not showcasing their disability to check off a box.


There are programs out there that will help businesses bring aboard PWD with financial incentives. Ideally, those subsidized roles lead to long-term, meaningful employment.

Too often, though, people are employed whilst the subsidy exists, but once it runs out, they're let go and the process begins again with someone new (and qualifying for that subsidy).

That's not the point of the incentives. The point is to encourage people to take a chance -- and once their initial misconceptions and fears have been allayed, then you've been exposed to a positive and productive relationship.

Artificial Barriers

We need to revisit much of how we look at hiring and team-building. For example, many of the standard practices many companies have in place for hiring put up artificial barriers to hiring people with disabilities. For example, we often ask for experience in a field -- which, due to the systemic barriers that have been in place, is often challenging for people with disabilities to obtain.

Look at the frequently used job requirement insisting that someone must own a vehicle. For many people with disabilities, they either choose not to drive or are unable to drive. But if you frame that question as, "are you able to reliably travel to and from work?" then you open the options to people who use public transit -- which embraces that accessibility for all.

Myths & Misconceptions

Any of these sound familiar?

  • People with disabilities aren't going to be as good of an employee: The fact is 90 per cent of PWD rate average or better on job performance compared to their colleagues without disabilities*.
  • People with disabilities aren't reliable and will call in sick a lot: The fact is 86 per cent of PWD rate average or better on attendance than their colleagues without disabilities*.
  • People with disabilities are going to get hurt on the job: The fact is 98 per cent of people with a disability rate average or better on work safety than their colleagues without disabilities*.
  • People with disabilities are just going to leave the job soon: The fact is job turnover amongst PWD is estimated to be 20 per cent of the rate of other employees*.

And the biggest myth? That PWD are a niche market. Approximately one in seven people in Ontario have a disability. That number doesn't include those who are related to, or support someone with a disability. And the number is only going to grow as our population ages.When you factor in families and loved ones, PWD represent over half the population with a buying power of $40 billion in Canada alone.

That's the real bottom line -- and why it makes sense for your business to dispel those myths and embrace accessibility.

Missing the Point

The greatest problem with tokenism,  exploiting subsidies, false beliefs, and artificial barriers is that they serve to obscure the point of what we want to do. It isn't about giving a disabled person a job because they're disabled -- it's finding the right person for the job.


When we simply view people with disabilities as potential employees, then the talent pool increases dramatically. The rate of unemployment amongst PWD is double that of the general population -- and over half of those people unemployed from the disabled community have post-secondary education.

It's clearly not about qualification or knowledge? So where's the disconnect? And how can we, as businesses, take a hard look at what we're doing -- and unintentionally doing -- to perpetuate these barriers.

Finding the right fit is incredibly important -- and incredibly beneficial. We've spoken at length about how having a person with a visual impairment has allowed us to improve our products by adding a layer of experiential analysis beyond the dotting of the "I"s and crossing the "T"s of AODA compliance. Another example comes from CIBC, who worked with Specialisterne to use the particular skills of people on the Autism spectrum to benefit its business.

Access Talent: Ontario's Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities has put out the call, challenging every Ontario employer with 20 or more employees to hire at least one more person with a disability. It's a noble cause, but it must be done correctly. This isn't about tokenism, but rather taking the time and effort to find people that fit in your organization and add value based upon their skills and abilities -- not just checking off a box to meet a quota.

* according to the Partnership Council on Employment Opportunities for People with Disabilities

Questions Answered

What are the barriers for hiring people with disabilities?

Why is the unemployment rate higher for people with disabilities?

How do we get people with disabilities into the workforce?



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