Good Business is Everyones Business

Workplace Accommodation

Mar. 1, 2017

Imagine submitting your resume, being called for an interview, practicing and preparing for it, all to arrive and find out the building is inaccessible and the job is out of reach.

Jamie Eddy, 45, a Carleton student born with spina bifida, has experienced physical and attitudinal barriers to the workplace more than once.

On one occasion, after taking the elevator up to an interview, the hiring manager asked Eddy how he reached the buttons.

“What a stupid question to have to ask,” says Eddy, who has been in a wheelchair his whole life.

Eddy is among those the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) seeks to support by setting accommodation standards in the workplace.

As of Jan. 1 2017, all Ontario businesses are required to meet the ‘employment standards’ under the act.

The standards require businesses to adhere to unified hiring practices and career development and management action plans. The act is in place to help employers determine appropriate accommodations based on individual needs and business resources.

The deadline comes a month after the release of a study conducted by the Angus Reid Institute in December 2016. The study shows employment conditions remain dismal for Canadians living with disabilities.

According to Deborah Lamb, the senior communications advisor at the office of MP Tracy MacCharles, the AODA standard establishes a baseline level of accessibility.

“The standard is in force to break down barriers so qualified candidates with disabilities can apply for jobs, be successful and participate in our economy,” Lamb says.

David Lepofsky, chair of a disability advocacy group, says current barriers are a consequence of the fact the world wasn’t constructed for people with disabilities.

More often than not, when people with disabilities want to participate it’s like society is handing them a shoehorn and saying “try to fit yourself in but we didn’t design this place for you,” says Lepofsky of the AODA Alliance. The alliance works with the community and government to promote the successful implementation of the act.

Eddy agrees with his comparison. In addition to his own experience with barriers, he has worked with other members of the disabled community as an employment counsellor with the Ottawa Independent Living Resource Centre.

Having been on both ends of the equation, Eddy says a lot of the time barriers have to do with peoples’ attitudes toward disability. This obstacle cannot be addressed by the act.

“You meet people every once in awhile that aren’t comfortable with you. They see a wheelchair and they’d rather not be around you… it comes down to ignorance,” says Eddy, who is currently unemployed.

Eddy experiences interviews where he can tell by the behaviour of the hiring manager they rarely encounter people with disabilities.

“Unfortunately they have all the power,” he says. “If it goes badly, the only one it works out poorly for is myself.”

In his personal and professional opinion, he concludes the reasoning behind current conditions has as much to do with psychosocial barriers as it does with physical barriers.

Eddy says he knows he’s lost out on jobs as a result of his disability. However, his perspective remains the same.

“Why would I fight for a job where they discriminate anyways?”

The Ontario Disability Employment Network offers guidance in addressing barriers with the goal of increasing employment opportunities.

Nancy Cyros, the employment diversity consultant at the network, suggests working with employers to understand the value of hiring people with disabilities plays a role in reducing stigma.

“By hiring people with disabilities to the workforce, companies will see increased profits due to lower turnover, increased productivity and a happier workplace all around,” she says.

Cyros acknowledges the misconception that accommodations can be costly and cumbersome, but insists this is not the case.

A study conducted by the Job Accommodation Network in 2015 shows 20 per cent of employees with a disability require no accommodation at all, with the average cost around $500.

The best way to know how to get started is to ask employees what they need, Cyros says. “This helps to build comfort and trust and to dispel the stereotypes out there.”

Statistics Canada data counters misconceptions, showing higher rates of dependability, loyalty and performance among workers with disabilities.

Cyros suggests businesses are beginning to see these benefits and are acting on accommodation. She has noticed an increase in the number of businesses requesting guidance from the employment network.

Alfred Spencer, the director of the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario, says he has also noticed employers are eager to comply with the act. The directorate is responsible for promoting and enforcing accommodation standards under the act.

“Without exception, businesses in Ontario really want to do the right thing,” he says.

Lepofsky acknowledges an effort to comply, but says standards are useless if buildings are being constructed without physical accommodation in mind.

The AODA Alliance released a video in November 2016 revealing the inaccessible features of the new Culinary Arts Centre at Centennial College in Scarborough. In the video, Lepofsky flags the inconsistent location of automatic door sensors, among other accessibility obstacles.

“A blind person would have to memorize where the buttons are located in the building, and that’s ignoring the fact they wouldn’t be able to identify them in the first place,” he says.

Lepofsky says the video demonstrates how insufficient accessibility legislation is.

“You can construct a new building that completely complies with the law and will still have accessibility problems,” he says. “Current legislation lets people down by not setting standards that regularize accessibility and make it something everyone will do the right way.”

Under the act there are multiple powers available to the directorate in cases where businesses are incompliant. According to Lamb, the directorate can initiate inspections, with or without financial penalties. If specific offences are identified, organizations may be referred to court for prosecution.

Spencer says consequences are set in place for a reason but are rarely necessary, as businesses are eager to comply.

On the contrary, Lepofsky says low penal rates are a result of the directorate ineffectively enforcing its consequential powers.

The alliance has submitted freedom-of-information requests to see what actions are being taken by the directorate to enforce the act.

“The information would reveal a rampant incompliance and the fact they have money on hand they haven’t used,” Lepofsky says. “It’s not because there’s a shortage of money to enforce, it’s a shortage of will.”

Eddy agrees. “It all comes back to an ableist attitude in enforcement. If the people in our society have this attitude then it stands to reason so do some of the lawmakers and policy writers.”

“The problem is there are so few people living with disabilities working in those key areas of government and legislation, that I don’t see how change can come quickly,” he says.

In the recent provincial cabinet shuffle, MP Tracy MacCharles was appointed to oversee two more departments in addition to her current responsibilities as accessibility minister.

While much of the disabled community saw the shuffle as a setback, Spencer says regardless of MacCharles’ new responsibilities, the fact Ontario has a minister overseeing accessibility for the first time has been received well by the community.

Eddy doesn’t necessarily agree. While there may be overlap in her responsibilities, adding more to her plate means each of her portfolios will receive less attention.

“We need somebody who’s devoted to accessibility,” he says.

According to the AODA, the government has until 2025 to lead Ontario to full accessibility.

Lamb says Ontarians need to promote a cultural shift that embraces inclusion and makes accessibility second nature.

“If we decided right now that we want the workplace to be barrier free, we could do it,” Lepofsky says.