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How to build a disability-inclusive workplace

A workplace that’s inclusive of people who experience disabilities is a win-win for both employees and businesses.

8-minute read

The word “disability” has an unfortunate tendency to suggest that a person who has one may be less capable than someone who doesn’t. “Don’t be fooled,” says Joanna Goode, Executive Director at the Canadian Association for Supported Employment (CASE). “Ensuring your business is barrier-free is not only good for people with disabilities, but for your bottom line.”

An estimated 20% of people in Canada have a disability. Because some choose not to disclose it, you likely already have employees with disabilities who are quietly finding ways to excel despite the obstacles they may face—and they might be happier and even more productive if they could be open about it.

By creating an inclusive workplace culture, you may discover easy ways to support people so they can be even better at their jobs.

That’s because while some people experience physical disabilities that you can see—such as using a wheelchair—others may have ones that are less visible, such as any of the following:

  • neurodiversity—like autism or dyslexia
  • mental health issues—like anxiety or depression
  • episodic disabilities—like epilepsy or Crohn’s disease
  • intellectual or developmental disabilities—like Down syndrome
  • temporary disabilities arising from illness or injury—like a concussion or COVID-19 brain fog

Goode points out that “most people” will experience disability at some point in their lives, whether due to injury, a mental health challenge or age. Considering the numbers, it makes sense to be proactive about ensuring that all employees have what they need to do their best work. “By creating an inclusive workplace, you may discover easy ways to support people so they can be even better at their jobs,” says Joanna.

What is disability discrimination in the workplace?

Goode says that discrimination consists of practices that prevent people from applying for, being selected for, and progressing in positions—basically, it’s what gets in the way of people succeeding.

It can take the form of harassment or micro-aggressions, or range all the way to verbal or physical abuse. It can exist solely on an interpersonal level or be baked into policies, procedures and organizational norms—or both.

And it can be active or passive, says Goode. “If someone is passed over for promotion because they have a visual impairment, that's an example of active discrimination. If a company ignores the need to remove known barriers that prevent people from applying for roles, that's passive discrimination.”

What barriers affect people with disabilities?

Physical barriers are easy to spot—for example, stairs present a barrier for someone who uses a wheelchair.

But barriers can also exist at the policy or process level, says Goode. For example, sharing public job postings through platforms that are not screen-reader accessible means that someone with a visual impairment will never even know the posting exists. That’s a process barrier.

There can also be attitudinal barriers. These tend to show up as unconscious biases or preconceived notions and can prevent people from being hired in the first place or getting what they need to succeed.

Recognizing disability as a form of diversity

Having a diverse workforce promotes creativity and informed decision-making, says Goode—in part because people who have experienced disability have often devoted a great deal of time and energy to finding ways to navigate the world around them. They are accustomed to thinking outside the box and finding workarounds.

“If we agree that creativity and innovation are among the key ingredients for business success, then it just makes sense to be intentional about hiring people who have had to develop those skills because of their life circumstances,” says Goode.

“In addition, recognizing disability as a form of diversity forces us to be more intentional in our work. It can stop us from taking the verbal and mental shortcuts that come from assuming other people see and experience the world the same way we do.”

The importance and value of being disability-inclusive

Companies that are intentional about accommodations tend to build cultures and ways of working that benefit all staff, not just those experiencing disabilities.

“If you’re not addressing the issue head on, then you’re not helping employees do their best work,” says Goode. By addressing disability intentionally, you not only create a more positive working environment, you can help everyone be more productive. “Companies that are intentional about accommodations tend to build cultures and ways of working that benefit all staff, not just those experiencing disabilities,” says Goode.

COVID-19 was a prime example of how entire workforces benefited from accommodations—like working from home, flexible schedules, more sick days, and allowances for mental health challenges—that were previously reserved for the few who had disclosed disabilities.

Goode also says that customers want to support businesses where they see themselves represented. “If you consider that 20% of Canadians have disabilities, that’s almost eight million people,” she says. “If you add in their spouses, parents, children, other loved ones, neighbours and friends, that’s a pretty high segment of the population who is conscious of disability inclusion.”

In addition, by casting a wider net, you get access to more diverse talent, and you can increase employee engagement and retention.

Your obligations to workers with disabilities

Under the Canadian Human Rights Act, employers are required to provide accommodation to employees with disabilities up to the point of “undue hardship.”

If an employer does not want to provide needed accommodations, the onus is on them to prove that the accommodations would present undue hardship, considering the cost, outside funding sources, and health and safety requirements. “Where costs are more substantial, financial support might be available, especially to support small- and medium-sized businesses,” says Goode.

She also notes that what is considered “undue hardship” will differ by employer. “A cost that is considered reasonable and well within the capacity of a larger, national company might be considered to present an undue hardship for a smaller shop with limited staff and income.”

Goode says it’s important to consider that not every employee experiencing a disability will need or want an accommodation. Nor will every such employee feel comfortable disclosing their disability, even in an inclusive environment. Solutions can be highly individual and should be selected based on conversations with employees.

How should you manage employees with disabilities?

The short answer, says Goode, is: the same way you would manage anyone else, as long as you’ve already set up an inclusive workplace.

An inclusive workplace ensures there are no barriers preventing the best person for the job from doing the job well. So, once you’ve got that person on board and have given them the tools to succeed, there is nothing different about managing their performance—including letting them go if need be.

That said, Goode believes employers have a “duty to inquire” first: if someone is struggling, start by asking what they need to get back on track rather than beginning with a punitive approach.

“Be curious, rather than immediately judgmental, about what’s getting in the way of success,” says Goode.

How can you promote sensitivity to disability in your business?

We’ve talked to a lot of companies about disability inclusion. Most agree that it's important but are unsure where to start. The key is a willingness to take the first steps, no matter how small.

Joanna Goode, Executive Director, Canadian Association for Supported Employment

Making a clear public commitment to inclusion and accessibility is an important starting place, says Goode, but to see the benefits, you need to act on that commitment.

Goode says this means looking critically at your organization—and even at yourself personally—and then making the needed changes. “We’ve talked to a lot of companies about disability inclusion. Most agree that it’s important but are unsure where to start. The key is a willingness to take the first steps, no matter how small.”

There are organizations in most communities that can help with this. CASE also offers resources and training for businesses looking to be more disability-inclusive, along with links to local support organizations.

How can you make your workplace more accessible—and what will it cost?

Start by developing a strong policy framework that takes accessibility into consideration from the ground up, says Goode. Then, implement accessibility policies related to recruitment, selection and onboarding as well as performance management, workplace safety, work hours and accommodations.

Setting new company norms is also important. “Ideally, you want to take the onus off of people with disabilities to always be the ones flagging problems.”

Cash-strapped small businesses need not worry, says Goode, because while a handful of changes can be expensive (such as installing an elevator), many others are free or inexpensive to make.

For example, during virtual meetings, “it takes two clicks to turn on closed captioning,” she says. “That's useful for someone who’s hearing impaired—but it’s also good for anyone who has dogs barking or kids yelling in the background.”

Other inexpensive ideas include the following:

  • sharing detailed agendas before meetings—so everyone can get their questions and ideas organized in advance
  • taking good notes at meetings and sharing them afterward—so everyone can keep up
  • offering flexible work schedules and sick time if needed—so employees can take care of themselves
  • creating and sharing a policy or framework on disability inclusion—so you create a culture of openness and show that company leaders take this seriously

“If an email goes out from the boss telling everyone to turn on closed captioning during meetings so we can improve accessibility, that sends a powerful message about the company’s commitment,” says Goode. “If I’m wrestling with something, I may now feel more comfortable knocking on my supervisor’s door.”

For more information

There are organizations in most communities that can offer information, mentorship or even financial support to businesses looking to become more disability-inclusive. Consult the CASE website for more information or to find a service provider.

Next step

Explore principles related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and tools to help you apply them in your business: DEI Toolkit