Precious Little to Celebrate for NDEAM - But Your Small Efforts Can Help

A yellow-brick road leading off to a gleaming city in the distance.

“Celebrating Disability Inclusion for More than 70 Years” the US department of labour site proudly proclaims. But for many on both sides of the border, there’s precious little to celebrate. The numbers are still atrocious and the general attitudes are even worse. 

But here we are, at the start of National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month. Here we are where the unemployment rate for working age adults with disabilities is at 41 per cent -- dramatically higher than that of people without disabilities. This is also a highly educated group of people as over half of the unemployed have post-secondary education.

It seems odd, doesn’t it? We hear from businesses about the challenges they have obtaining and retaining talent. We hear about the lack of qualified candidates. Conversely, we have this pool of educated talent that can’t obtain full-time work. A plus B should equal C, right?


There are systemic barriers throughout our community that make it challenging for people to find work. Educational challenges often divert people with disabilities from STEM pathways into more liberal arts-based fields; finding textbooks in Braille can be overly burdensome, and sometimes disabilities don’t allow for a smooth progression through a course.

And that’s just in school. From inaccessible office environments to unintentional barriers that businesses set up (either attitudinal, linguistic, or physical), it can be challenging for people to make a difference.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. I firmly believe most people want to be as inclusive as possible -- it’s just scary and overwhelming. 

I’m part of the provincial Employers’ Partnership Table under the Ontario Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility, and we’re about to release a number of case studies to help better inform businesses about the challenges, solutions, and successes businesses over a wide spectrum of sizes and industries have had with accessible hiring. 

I also had a great -- albeit nascent -- conversation yesterday with some provincial colleagues about new opportunities for London to play a key role in accessible employment. More on that at a later date. 

But that’s for the future. What can you do today? 

Avoid Tokenism

When we were first called to the Employers’ Partnership Table by the then-Liberal government, it was to support the Access Talent initiative, and the then-Minister was very excited about the idea of a “Hire One” philosophy. The idea was that every business over a certain size should hire someone with a disability.

We were adamantly opposed to that and the strategy quickly faded. Too often, hiring for accessibility has been related to tokenism. Someone you can put in a customer-facing role for show. That’s not the goal.

Instead, we wanted to focus on hiring people not “because” they were disabled, but because they were qualified candidates -- and, in some cases, their disabilities were actually beneficial to the business. 

There are stories of banks hiring people on the Autism spectrum that have enjoyed multiple benefits -- increased productivity in catching fraud, improved communication throughout the organization. We, at Digital Echidna, have benefitted from having someone with a visual disability on staff providing experiential analysis of sites that has allowed us to go beyond AODA compliance to embrace the spirit of the legislation as it relates to an equitable experience for all.

Ignore the “Good” Stats

Organizations that I’ve been a part of have been guilty of this, but we’ve learned our lessons. As part of our desire to dispel myths about people with disabilities, we’ve been unfair to the community. Stats like “87 per cent of people with disabilities rated average or better on attendance” or people with disabilities have a “72 per cent higher retention rate” are meant in good faith -- they’re meant to dispel the idea that people with disabilities will have higher rates of absenteeism due to their disability, or would be unreliable.

But that’s an unfair expectation to set on anyone. People with disabilities aren’t Supermen or Superwomen. They’re people. 

So please don’t hire because you think, “this person will stay longer because they have a disability and it will cost me less, long-term, because I won’t have to keep retraining people.” Ultimately, that should be your goal with all employees -- disabled or not. You want people to want to work for you and if you treat them well, they’ll stay. 

Review What You Actually Need

You may be open to hiring people with disabilities. You may have a fully accessible environment. But still, you’re not receiving any applications. Why? Well, sometimes there are systemic barriers that we often create in our hiring practices that serve to preclude people with disabilities from applying in the first place.


People with disabilities often face systemic barriers preventing them from gaining the work experience that we take for granted. Summer jobs, after-school jobs, internships -- all the things that able-bodied people experience are often challenging for people with disabilities to be a part of. And that creates a snowball effect long-term, as getting jobs is increasingly difficult without proof of experience. So is experience really necessary for your role? Can it be coached or taught?


“Must have a valid driver’s license.” 

Is that an actual requirement for the job, or are you just asking if the person can reliably get to work? 

Of course, this is where other systemic barriers come into play -- and I won’t go off on a rant about paratransit in our fair city, how woeful it is, and how it gets ignored in favour of other areas. But the fact is that some areas are underserviced by transit, which could make it challenging for people to get to work. 

When some people with disabilities see requirements like that, they just move on to the next job because they figure they won’t be considered. It’s a simple fix that can have a dramatic impact on your pool of candidates.


What allowances do you make for your able-bodied staff? Flex time for appointments? Letting people leave early to pick up kids from daycare? What about ergonomic supports at workstations? Mechanisms to prevent things like repetitive strain injuries? So why would it be any different for people with disabilities?

If you’ve read any of my previous accessibility-related work, you know my disdain for “accommodations.” That word, to me, sounds like we’re doing something “special” or “different.” Instead, I see any adaptations you need for people with disabilities as providing them with the tools, resources, and abilities to do their jobs to the best of their abilities -- no different than any other allowances that you would make for any other employee.

Hired Not Because or In Spite of a Disability

So what can you do? Just minimize the impact of a couple of the things mentioned above. Change the wording in your next job posting to make sure it’s inclusive. You don’t have to run out and hire someone with a disability this month -- but it would be great if you fostered an environment where people with disabilities were able to compete for jobs equitably.

Ideally, people are not hired because of their disabilities, but that the barriers that preclude them from obtaining work are removed so that they’re judged on their skills, talents, and abilities to bring value to your organization. 

That’s an achievable goal for NDEAM, and one we should all be working towards.


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Questions Answered

How can I hire people with disabilities?

What are the barriers people with disabilities have in finding work?



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