Professionals With Disabilities: Accomodating Persons With Disabilities Can Pay Big Dividends

There has been a great deal of discussion, in recent years, about our aging baby boomer population and how this will impact our economy. As workers retire and leave large gaps in the labour market serious questions are being raised as to who will step up to fill the void. Human Resources and Social Development Canada issued a briefing, in 2007, detailing current and future labour market shortages. The report showed signs of the shortage, presently, and predicted significant labour shortages, in the next ten years, in the fields of business, finance and administration, health care, trades, processing and manufacturing, and jobs specific to primary industries such as oil and gas production. The Conference Board of Canada issued a report investigating “looming labour shortage challenges” and made several key recommendations. Among these were developing and encouraging labour force participation in underrepresented populations including people with disabilities, and addressing persistent barriers to workforce entry by adopting new approaches to skills development, training and recruitment. Despite the predicted shortage and suggestions by experts — little has been done to actually implement any model for change.

In 2001, Statistics Canada reported 1.5 million disabled people living in Ontario and representing 13.5% of the existing population. While this may seem a staggering number, it does not even begin to reflect the current picture. Once, the majority of the newly disabled people came from younger populations but significant numbers of newly disabled are appearing in people over aged 60. This can be the direct result of accident or illness, including mental health related issues and stress. The result, in many cases, is that employees who are diagnosed with disabilities in later years may decide to leave the workforce, earlier than anticipated, thereby adding to the labour shortage. Unfortunately, not only are they leaving a void in the workforce but these older workers also take with them their years of knowledge, experience and skills which can negatively impact employers, as well.

In the past, as a result of both physical and societal barriers, people who experienced disabilities earlier in life typically achieved lower levels of education and accordingly attained lower levels of employment. Barriers to education can include inaccessible infrastructure, lack of support and negative attitudes. Remedies for this may include establishing learning programs at post-secondary institutions that are more accessible and relevant to a modern integrated society. Even students graduating with top marks can have a difficult time finding jobs because they must find additional ways to prove themselves and their abilities to potential employers. Student work placement programs may be a solution to achieving greater awareness and experience for both managers and student workers. Even those who achieve meaningful and appropriate education still find the road to employment difficult or may end up working in positions far below their skills and education level. Too frequently, people with disabilities are forced to work at dead-end or unskilled jobs or are permitted to work only part-time. With the high potential for low-level job satisfaction, many workers will leave the workforce earlier than they might have otherwise left if they had found meaningful employment. This is another major way that the disabled population could be better utilized to support a dwindling labour force.

Experts across Canada agree, we must find ways to overcome barriers to employment. We must do a better job of assessing and promoting abilities, rather than looking at disabilities, and match job candidates to appropriate work term trials so employees can be given a fair period of time to show their skill and ability. This might be addressed, in some cases, through employment programs such as apprenticeships with direct training and job skill development. Statistics Canada’s Health and Activity Limitation Survey (1991) reported that 44% of persons with disabilities between the ages of 15 and 64 find themselves outside the paid labour force. This is largely as a result of barriers in the physical environment or employers who do not recognize or lack the training to accommodate and support a candidate with a disability.

Expert analysis recommends strategies for employment to accommodate needs specific to an aging workforce. The issues facing this portion of the population – whether disabled or not – often deal with issues of stress, hours that are too long, work loads too heavy and a group of people reaching a point in their lives where perhaps they want to work a little less and begin to enjoy semi-retirement. However, nothing tangible has been done to put forth a more comprehensive model of work for this portion of our labour market.

Bob Fortier is President of Innovisions Canada and President of the Canadian Telework Association. Teleworking is the provision of labour away from the primary place of employment –usually at home. Teleworkers can opt to work remotely all of the time or as required. Fortier believes telework is a viable solution to labour shortages and a boon to both the disabled community and as a method of retaining older employees who may otherwise consider retirement. The key to successful teleworking is to make sure the situation is voluntary, operationally feasible and acceptable to both sides. “This can be a great way for an organization to save money, help employees balance busy lifestyles and reduce job related stress. It also tends to increase productivity and reduces absenteeism.”

There is tremendous potential for teleworking to bridge the employment gap — the positive results drive success and minimize the traditional importance of job site attendance, specific hours worked and conditions of work. In order for this kind of scenario to be successful, there must be managers who can think outside the box. Unlike a typical work environment where both employee and manager are constantly present, teleworking managers must learn to manage by results rather than daily activity. Security issues and lack of proper equipment can present real barriers to this kind of accommodation but often even these can be overcome. Fortier believes, if employers look at the big picture, they will see this as a solution to the pending labour shortage. “Large amounts of work are being sent overseas, to save money, but companies don’t realize they can save money and keep jobs at home by having work done off site closer to home.” For a disabled employee who finds it difficult to work in a traditional setting – this can be a perfect fit. Smart managers with staffing shortages will expand their scope to include employees from pools of remote workers including the disabled and the elderly. “I have a number of disabled friends who would love the opportunity to telework and it would solve many of the challenges they now face.” Fortier says, ultimately the issue is who can do the work, rather than how or where they do the job.

Fortier believes the future generations will further promote teleworking because they are comfortable with technology and know what it can do. They demand flexibility and will ultimately refuse to work for any employer who is rigid and does not give them what they need. “As these younger generations move ahead and take over as managers telework will open up even more and, eventually, everyone who is job seeking, including the disabled community, will be able to expect the same.”

Right now there is a huge, largely untapped market of young people with disabilities who have the education and tools needed to do the job. There is also a large group of older, disabled people with experience and knowledge who are not being fully utilized and whose wisdom and experience is being left to waste. Employers who recognize the value of this untapped market will find themselves better prepared, in the coming years, to cope with Canada’s reduced labour market.

By: Heather Seftel-Kirk