Canada’s best innovators? Try the PWDs (people who disrupt)

It was the case of the humble oven timer.

Mark Wafer needed a new baker, to help keep pace with demand at one of his six Tim Horton’s outlets. But his preferred candidate faced a challenge: she was deaf and couldn’t hear the timer beep when the baked goods were ready.

No problem, the employee explained; she’d simply keep an eye on the countdown clock.

Wafer put the woman in the baker’s job, and soon discovered he had a leap in productivity. Turns out, the double timer was useful to everyone in the kitchen trying to multitask. And today, thanks to Wafer’s initiative, the process is standard in every Tim’s across Canada.

“It’s not just about hiring people with disabilities. It’s about providing goods and services that meet the needs of the market,” Wafer told an RBC forum on disabilities called “Innovation: Casting a Wider Net.”

Disabilities have become a key driver of business innovation, as Canada comes to grips with a growing population of people with disabilities, a surge in elderly numbers, and stagnant productivity.

Wafer, who was born deaf, calls it the “competitive advantage” of disabilities. His six Toronto-area restaurants now lead the chain’s Toronto region in productivity, as well as employee engagement. Staff turnover in his outlets is about half the national average for Tim’s.

About 15% of Canadians live with a disability, either visible or invisible. The number grows to 53% when family and caregivers are included.

“If you have a workforce full of people who excel in problem solving, you’ve got innovation waiting to happen,” said Maayan Ziv, founder of AccessNow, an interactive map that crowdsources data about the accessibility of restaurants, hotels, airlines and other services.

As Canada looks to foster more innovation, technologies like Ziv’s app may offer a hidden key.

A photographer and member of the renowned startup group Next 36, Ziv says her app shows how disabilities can be a lens on the broader market. AccessNow users have pinned more than 7,600 places, in nearly 200 cities, with data that is being accessed by a cross-section of users, from stroller-pushing parents to school groups needing to know if a location has ramps and automatic doors.

She says the iPhone has revolutionized accessibility by placing the world’s most accessible device in the hands of millions. With accessibility features, smart phones not only give users virtual access to a new generation of services; they’ve put power in the hands of the consumer, including the disabled.

“People with disabilities live in a world with many barriers and as a result have to plot out every day. It’s the power of problem solving,” said David Onley, Ontario’s former Lieutenant Governor who is now special adviser on accessibility to the Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure.

Onley said business is finally starting to see the economic value of disabilities, through innovation and productivity. Evidence points clearly to it being a significant benefit, but too many still see providing accessibility as a cost.

He referred to the reconfiguration of an Airbus cabin, to provide accessible washrooms for disabled passengers. This accommodation also created room for six more seats in the aircraft, and therefore more revenue for airlines. Restaurants that install ramps also benefit from the families and groups that accompany people with disabilities.

Wafer, who bought his first Tim’s franchise in 1995, now employs about 140 people with disabilities across his six outlets. In 2012, he was appointed to the federal Panel on Labour Market Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities.

One of his first hires was Clint, a man with Down Syndrome, who quickly proved to be one of his most loyal and productive employees. “He was never late. He was never sick,” Wafer said, highlighting the economic benefits. Twenty years later, Clint is still one of Mark’s top employees.

Wafer says his disabled employees are 18% more productive than the general workforce. They also continue to help him open his eyes to market opportunities, especially through technology.

He recently installed “order assist” notepads in his drive-throughs, to help customers who are deaf or hearing impaired to navigate the Tim’s menu. He’s since discovered the devices are popular with people whose first language is not English, as well as with parents coping with a carload of noisy children.

“We find technology is very adaptive,” Wafer said.

Onley pointed to other unintended outcomes of technologies for people with disabilities. Closed captioning, for instance, has become widely used by people who are not deaf: viewers who mute their TVs while they talk on the phone, or those who don’t fully comprehend the language, or accents, of a particular program. Closed captioning is so popular now it is widely used by social media platforms such as Facebook.

Onley said Ontario is probably the world’s leading jurisdiction when it comes to accessibility, but still has a long ways to go. The accessibility laws that he championed do not take full effect until 2025, and even then won’t cover all employers or businesses.

He said employers need to do more to confront “disabiliphobia” — the anxiety in many workplaces over the presence of a visibly disabled person.

Wafer instituted a practice called ATP, or Ask the Person. This is a simply but powerful concept to get people with disabilities talking more openly.

“Generate enough conversation to make change,” said Ziv.