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Rolling Through Barriers: Inclusive Workplaces

This fall, as part of Spinal Cord Injury Ontario’s Rolling Through Barriers campaign, we hosted a virtual panel to tackle some of the challenges and opportunities that exist when it comes to finding meaningful and sustainable work forpeople with disabilities.

The discussion on building inclusive workplaces included a variety of perspectives, both from members of the SCIO community with lived experience navigating the job hunt with a disability, and employers with a reputation for hiring and accommodating employees with disabilities. 

Sobering stats on disability and employment are crucial for understanding the importance of such panels:

  • One in five people in Ontario have a disability. 
  • Over 25% of working people with disabilities report that their employers are not aware of their disability. 
  • Only 47% of working aged adults with disabilities report that they are employed, compared to 74% of those without disabilities. 

Panelists with lived disability experience were candid in sharing the challenges along their journeys. Leandro Roca reflected on the transition to the Canadian job market as a newcomer from Brazil, while Nikoletta Erdelyi shared concerns over the gap in her resume since the pandemic hit. In spite of additional barriers posed by COVID, including higher unemployment rates and more competition, she also acknowledged the new opportunities that changing work conditions have brought on. “I use a service called Wheel-Trans, which used to limit me to work opportunities only in Toronto. With so many opportunities being remote these days, I am now able to apply for positions in say, Richmond Hill or Mississauga.” Still, with workplaces slowly returning to official locations, Nikoletta is unsure how long this advantage will last. 

Screenshot of Zoom meeting.

The three employers who participated on the panel were quick to echo sentiments of a rapidly evolving work culture since 2020. Kali Kefalionos of Home Depot Canada reflected on the early days of the pandemic, where all job interviews had to be conducted virtually. “We had associates applying for roles that had hearing disabilities, so we worked with head office and were able to get closed captioning onto our programs. Prior to virtual interviews, we would just ask the candidates beforehand what accommodations they needed, so it was very much about adjusting fast and educating ourselves as HR professionals to make the process accessible for everyone.” 

Fatima Finnegan of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association touched on the culture of fear that is ever-present in the world of recruiting. “There is often fear from the employer that they may have the wrong words, but when it comes to accommodating employees, we have to ask the person; how can I help you succeed? How can we make this process more comfortable for you?” She emphasized that most accommodations are relatively simple and include things like workspace modifications with desks, chairs, screens and sometimes lighting. “In the hotel industry specifically, the one accommodation we frequently use is a smartphone. And with that, the new challenge is perception. When guests see an employee on their smartphone, they may be quick to assume that they are not doing their job, but this is something we address later on, because the smartphone is actually a necessary accommodation for the employee.” 

Meanwhile, Katherine Lapensée from Canadian Heritage encouraged job seekers with disabilities to focus on their strengths and to show up to job interviews with a positive attitude. “Don’t be afraid, don’t be intimidated. Whoever you’re talking to across the table is feeling the exact same way. I think employers look for people who are confident in themselves, and that’s important,” she says. “Don’t be shy to ask a lot of questions.” Lapensée also touched on the wide range of accommodations that the Federal Government is able to provide for employees, stating that they are well equipped to adjust technologies, schedules, physical requirements and more in order to ensure that all employees are able to thrive. 

“There is often fear from the employer that they may have the wrong words, but when it comes to accommodating employees, we have to ask the person; how can I help you succeed?” 

The former job seekers on the panel also shared their insights about landing employment. Nikoletta reflected on her experience navigating long and intimidating job postings that often appeared like they were beyond her skill level. One evening, while sorting through her usual list of job postings, she came across a project coordinator role at a university. While the job piqued her interest, it listed a master’s degree as one of its requirements, which she did not have, but decided to apply for it anyway. “I figured I am fairly skilled and I have quite a bit of experience, so even though I only have a bachelor’s degree, I’m going to try my luck and see what happens.” About a month into hitting the “submit application” button, she was invited for an interview where she had to put on a presentation for a panel of senior administrators. She was offered the job a week later. “You have to try things sometimes that appear to be out of your league,” she says, “Challenge is good. And learning curves are going to happen in every single job you do, so you might as well try for positions that you really want.” 

Even with the success she had landing a fairly senior and sought-after position in higher education, Nikoletta touched on the need for a culture of awareness for those in hiring positions, and large institutions in general. While working in her previous role, she recalls many challenging winter days, where the option to work from home would have been helpful in order to avoid wheeling through ice and snow with a wheelchair. “The union that I worked for did not support working from home, so whether it was bright and sunny or -40 degrees and icy, I had to be in the office, often earlier than the snow was being shoveled, so it was exhausting. We need to strive for a culture of awareness, because we now know that working from home is an option. The whole world has done it for nearly two years.” 

Leandro added that persistence is key on the journey to meaningful employment and highlighted the importance of trying new experiences. With no experience in the Canadian job market, he took a position in retail at Apple before transitioning to a role better suited to his skillset and background.  Read more about Leandro’s story to find out what career path he is currently on and how Employment Services at SCIO helped him. 

Rolling Through Barriers: A Conversation on Building Inclusive Workplaces brought together a unique set of perspectives to tackle the issue of unemployment in the disability community. 

Nevertheless, the dialogue around inclusive hiring is just the starting point to creating change, and we must move beyond conversation and turn to action. While job seekers are encouraged to hone in on their transferable skills to highlight their employability, employers and HR professionals are asked to keep an open mind and treat all candidates as the individuals that they are – after all, there are no two candidates, whether they have a disability or not, that are identical in what they bring to the table. 

As Katherine Lapensée says, “If you’re not accommodating employees with disabilities, you are missing out. The costs for accommodations are extremely low and people with disabilities make excellent employees.” 

By: Zina Atkinson | Winter 2021/2022

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