Disability Employment Month: Where are you on the ability continuum?

By Melany Hallam

Accessibility 2024Who do you think of when you think of a disabled person? It’s often people who are visibly disabled that come immediately to mind, but disabilities aren’t always so obvious.

According to the latest Canadian Survey on Disability (2012), people were said to have a disability if they “had difficulty performing daily tasks as a result of a long-term condition or health-related problem and experienced a limitation in their daily activities.” This officially includes 10 disability types: seeing, hearing, mobility, flexibility, dexterity, pain, learning, developmental, mental/psychological, and memory.

At least five impairments identified in the 2012 survey are not visible at first glance, and could be applied to anyone to varying degrees. Does it not make sense, then, to view “disability” not as a distinct or separate part of our community but, rather, as just one more step on an ability continuum—of which we are all a part?

What does this mean for employers?

In 2013, only three in 10 Canadian small business owners indicated they had hired someone with a disability—essentially unchanged from 2012 (Bank of Montreal Survey, 2013). But the word is getting out. Employees who are disabled are a valuable resource for any organization and can be a boost to a business’s bottom line. Research shows that 80 per cent of consumers prefer to support businesses with diverse workforce, according to Inclusion BC. Companies with disabled employees may also attract customers with disabilities, thus increasing their business. That’s nothing to sneeze at, considering Canadian consumers with disabilities spend $25 billion a year and growing.

There are all kinds of success stories out there where people with disabilities have either made a job for themselves or have taken on work that makes a valuable contribution to their employer’s business and to the community.

Take the case of Derek Lith of Vancouver. Derek has a developmental disability but, 21 years ago, with support from a community program, he found work at MacDonald’s as a lobby person and has been with the restaurant chain ever since. As a lobby person, he cleans tables and counters, stacks trays and napkins, takes out the garbage, and re-stocks the straws, ketchup, and cups. He’s very serious about doing a good job and says that he learned most of his skills from supportive employers and co-workers and from practicing at home. He goes above and beyond to make sure that he gets to work on time—even walking for two hours to get there during a transit strike back in 2001.

A disability isn’t necessarily something that you’re born with, but can develop later in life due to injury or disease. In the case of Melanie Camille Caple, a car accident left her with a severe brain injury, affecting her ability to remember things and to understand new information. With the help of the BC Centre for Ability, a hard-won acceptance of her new limitations and a lot of self-advocacy, she now works as a health-club attendant at a major Vancouver hotel. She is also involved with the Abilities in Mind Committee, which works with employers to create more inclusive work places, and she’s planning to go back to school. Not bad for a person who wasn’t able to recognize her own family members after her 2008 accident.

Here’s another developmental disability story: Lisa Culpo of Port Moody. With the help of a local employment agency, Lisa got a job working for the City of Port Moody’s legislative services department as an office assistant. She sorts and delivers mail, shelves library books, files documents, and does other general office work. She started with the city in 1991 and was recently recognized for her years of service. Her supervisors value her contribution to office culture—she’s always cheerful, helpful, and a joy to have in the office.

Or how about the case of Emilea Hillman, a coffee-shop entrepreneur in Independence, Iowa. When Emilea was born, her parents were told that she would never walk or talk and that she should be institutionalized. But with the help of family, friends, and a government-grant program, at the age of 21 she was running her own coffee shop, greeting customers, answering the phone, supervising staff, and getting up every morning to start the coffee at 5:30 in the morning. When Emilea opened her coffee shop, it was the only one in town—an essential service for java junkies!

disabilitybcReading through the stories (and there are a lot of them, let me tell you!), the common factor seems to be that the disabled person had help when they needed it—be it from family members, friends, their communities, or government programs.

Employers often argue that the cost of accommodating a disability—whether it be a physical, mental, or developmental one—is too high to employ a disabled person. However, the BC Chamber of Commerce report Closing the Skills Gap found that the majority of workplace accommodations cost less than $500 and that the disabled employee makes the workplace better for not only other employees, but customers and clients as well.

The Employment Program of BC, delivered locally by Career Link, Powell River Model Community Project for Persons with Disabilities, Inclusion Powell River, and Community Futures Development Corporation of Powell River can help employers with needed workplace accommodations for employees with disabilities.

I’ve personally experienced the benefits of accommodating a disabled employee. In a previous job with the federal government, one of my co-workers was legally blind. With the help of computer software worth a few hundred dollars, I got to work with—and learn from—one of best writers and clearest thinkers in my professional life.

In fact, Barb was the person who first launched me into the world of self-employment, sending contract work my way when she was too busy to take it on herself. She believed in my ability to do the work and helped change the course of my life. I would love to be able to do that for another person. Wouldn’t you?

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