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Call it demographics, or call it reality. In Canada, the percentage of disabled workers in the overall population, which currently stands near 15%, is expected to rise over the next 20 years.

In the province of Ontario alone, one in seven people has some form of disability. Chances are, if you are not disabled yourself, someone in your immediate circle may be, and they may not be “wearing it on their sleeve,” so to speak.

That’s because the word “disability” has a pretty broad-based definition, at least in the Canadian context. It includes any physical, mental and learning disabilities, mental disorders, hearing or vision disabilities, epilepsy, and even drug and alcohol dependencies.

Another reality for Canada is the upcoming tsunami of older workers who will exit the workforce between 2014-2016, impacting sectors such as transportation and logistics, where there are already recruiting and retention issues.

With this kind of supply and demand scenario, are there some winning matches to be made by hiring disabled workers?

“They are not a scary, separate entity of the population,” said Jennifer Gorman, a diversity recruitment specialist with, a southern-Ontario based job site.

At any given time, Gorman has access to an active list of pre-screened disabled candidates who are looking for work.

“People are so frightened of disability, but once they meet the individual, it’s the relationship that becomes so important. The disability goes out the window when things are personalized,” she said.

In the supply chain sector, many organizations are already at work promoting hiring amongst this demographic.
The Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council launched a recruitment and retention project targeting a message to five potential labour source groups: newcomers to Canada, aboriginals, youth, people in transition, people with disabilities, and women.

The Council is also working with Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) in this area.

In a fall 2008 issues management survey, CME found that 31% of participating companies reported skills shortages constraining growth and potential of their businesses, and 66% claimed they were having trouble finding and retaining entry-level talent.

So CME is challenging its members and the business community at large to source 10% of new hires from the disabled community by the year 2020.

But there is still a lot of ground to cover.

In the province of Ontario, CME has partnered with the Ministry of Community and Social Services to provide support for employers who are looking to broaden their hiring base and ensure results.

Business Takes Action (BTA) is an initiative funded by the Ministry of Community and Social Services since 2007. It has a mandate to provide the tools and resources that employers need to remove physical and attitudinal barriers associated with recruiting, retraining, accommodating and hiring persons with disabilities. BTA targets small to medium-sized business and has created a new guidebook, called Taking Action, presenting the business case for employing people with disabilities.

This was the first program of its kind intended to advocate in the interest of employers, and was developed entirely with feedback from its founding employer members, noted Elaine Austin, program director of Business Takes Action at CME.

“We have a greater ability to get in front of the private sector than government representatives,” said Austin.

But the government can mandate change, and back in 2005, the Ontario government passed the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) setting into law access standards in five areas: customer service, built environment (removing barrier access in buildings), information and communications, employment and transportation. With this, the province became the first jurisdiction in Canada to develop, implement and enforce mandatory accessibility standards. British Columbia has also made headway with work done for the Olympics and Paralympics.

Public sector organizations had until 2010 to comply with the standards while for private business, not-for-profit and service providers, January is the deadline.

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind, March of Dimes Canada and The Canadian Hearing Society also offer an Accessible Customer Service E-Learning course.

Austin said that various myths and perceptions continue to surround the hiring of the disabled, for example, that they will have bad attendance records, and that it will cost a lot to accommodate them in the workplace.

“Business Takes Action works to dispel many of the myths, noting that 56% of accommodations cost less than $500, and that 86% of persons with disabilities actually had higher attendance records, versus taking more sick days, according to a DuPont/Royal Bank of Canada Study,” she noted.

“We work to overcome the most difficult barriers, the non-visible ones, such as discomfort, fear, and preconceived notions,” said Austin.

Termination on grounds of not performing a job well is not any more difficult with a disabled person, and people with disabilities are often hyper-aware of the dangers around them and aware of how to deal with these, she added.

“The other thing is we’re all going to be disabled at some point in our lives as we get older. People with lower functionality, with a development-type disability, actually like a little more repetition in terms of work tasks,” she said.

One of the biggest success stories in hiring the disabled is US-based drug chain Walgreens.

Randy Lewis, senior vice-president of distribution and logistics at Walgreens, hired 40% disabled staff at the company’s logistics centre in South Carolina, who then worked and trained, on their own dime, for a full year.

Lewis ran the warehouse computers using pictures to accommodate different skills sets.

“Of 700 staff, 280 have disabilities. They saw a 20% improvement in productivity. Lewis now travels the world talking about these successes. This is a competitive advantage that they’ve had for awhile. I have asked all our VPs and presidents across Canada, members of CME, to find business stories that echo this,” said Austin.

Lewis was one of the keynote speakers at the 2011 Warehousing and Education Research Council’s conference, detailing the initiative.

“It’s not only possible, it’s being done. This isn’t just a theory, this is real world,” said Austin.

“The people will be there far longer than the machines. So one of the issues with technology is that there are so many advances with it; it’s not a barrier, it’s an aid that can be tailored to suit,” said Brian F. Eddy, director of sales and marketing for SubCon Industries, just south of Buffalo, N.Y., which performs rework, light assembly, light manufacturing and returns.

“We are a non-profit organization that provides employment training opportunities for 200 adults with disabilities. We are dedicated to developing their vocational skills, and good work habits, to help them achieve their individual goals,” said Eddy.

For the past 45 years, Eddy says, the company has provided a variety of value-added services, such as outsourcing to regional and local businesses serving manufacturers/OEMs, importers and exporters, 3PL’s, 3PSP, distribution centres, retailers, wholesalers, liquidators, e-commerce, and government agencies.

There are many warehousing and third-party logistics tasks which can be ideally suited to the disabled, such as order picking, packaging, receiving, pricing merchandise, and affixing security tags to clothing or merchandise.

“There are some organizations like us that are lurking and you’d like to be the matchmaker somewhat,” said Eddy, noting that the company does a lot of work for goods that come down from Canada as well.

“There are tremendous costs associated with keeping entry level folks in warehousing and 3PL, and a lot of turnover. For each
person walking out the door, it’s about $4,000 per person to recruit, hire and train,” he said.

“We outsource for a lot of these folks because they can’t deal with the problem. We also do a lot of returns here, which seems to be a pain for most manufacturers. There is a need for the service because returns are fairly large in the US. Even with high unemployment in the US, they can’t find workers. They do the temp thing, but then you have to pay the agency fees. We’re always getting calls. It’s coming primarily from 3PLs because I know a lot of them now. A lot of 3PLs offer extended value-added service offerings but can’t keep the people or get the capital, and I’ve seen the field evolve and grow dramatically,” he said.

Eddy’s approach to hiring the disabled sees them placed in a setting with a job coach, who helps them adopt to the new setting.

Dispelling the myths about hiring the disabled will take a lot of education, said Eddy.

“Some of the folks we’ve got were in accidents, or were born with a disability but no one would hire them.”

Their unemployment rate is staggering – more than 70%.

Meanwhile, said Eddy, “People are fighting upstream and not looking beyond the numbers” on demographics.

“From a recruiting standard, I think this industry lost a generation of workers because they didn’t educate them on what’s available. They probably didn’t see the tsunami coming. It has to be an industry-wide effort as well. Logistics has grown so much, and now is hitting a wall. Our slogan ‘Get a Return on your Returns’ is not solely based on the financial aspect, but also the true (CSR) social returns of providing jobs for the disabled,” he said.

Among Canadian businesses, noted Austin, “There is a lot of great ideas, but there is also still a lot of talking heads. You need someone in the organization to say this is not only the right thing to do, it’s a good thing to do,” she said.

Some employers have been proactive.

In 2010, a couple (Tim Hortons franchisees) was awarded BTA’s Innovation Award for hiring persons with disabilities.

“The average tenure for their employees was six years vs. one year for the average employee. The result was fewer uniforms to buy, and training reduced hand over fist.

“The exchange: equal pay for equal work,” said Austin.

Sears and Kimberley Clark have also started hiring among the disabled, she said.

“The Canadian Hearing Society will also work with a business to get them to hire people who are deaf to drive tow motors. You can modify the lighting on tow motors. Canadians just need to see some examples and then they’ll do it.”

Dolphin Support Stream is an IT support service that was built around people with disabilities.

“We are certainly not accessibility professionals, but we did design components of our business around social alignment. It was a personal decision we made. Our goal was not simply to service our clients for IT support, but also to remove barriers to employment,” said Jamie Burton, director of business development for Dolphin Support Stream, and Dolphin Digital Technologies Online, which provides online IT technical support for various industries worldwide, and which designs and supports networks.

When one person in seven has some type of disability, and when this disability is termed “invisible” or “non-visible,” the workforce is already impacted, noted Burton.

As an employer who specifically asks candidates about their abilities timeframe, facilitating their ability to work from wherever they are, virtually, based on Internet access, “Knowing that, it empowers me to schedule that person. I never have to accommodate. Individuals are hired around skills first and foremost. We do not make concessions. It’s not about a social profit initiative or filling a quota. It’s about alleviating a certain mindset. And only about 10-15% of the disabled really require adaptive technologies,” said Burton.

As’s Gorman said, “It’s about mutually beneficial relationships.”

The Rotary Club promotes a “Rotary at work” program using their position to leverage positions for people with disabilities.
“We’re trying to team up with them. Certainly, high turnover industries are more receptive. Warehousing positions would be fantastic positions for our folks. We have loads of people who could do that sort of work.

“Organizations with diversity built into their vision are more receptive as well. A lot of employers are frustrated with higher turnover and training costs. As a vehicle to sort of try and reduce that they will call us. But we still need employers to know that we’re here, even if they are not looking for people right now. They can access the job search Web site on their own. None of that costs them any money. It’s a really win-win situation,” she said.

A prospective employer who contacts is then teamed with an account manager who will go in and do
sensitivity training if needed. Job coaches can provide support and extra training
to the candidate in the workplace for up to 33 months.

In some situations, can access a wage subsidy, that can help pave the way for an individual who may need extra time to become proficient on the job.

“We’re highly motivated to make sure that the match works. The other factor is that the majority of the individuals we’re working with are on disability support. They are looking for work because it’s a vehicle out of poverty,” said Gorman.
Employers also have access to customized employment, where for example there may be unskilled tasks someone can do a couple of hours or days a week that satisfies these needs.

“Many of our candidates want the opportunity to work just a few hours or days a week and this is a fit and also allows them not to lose their benefits,” she said.

The disabled are not only potential employees, but also ready consumers.

“There is $25 billion in spending power among people with disabilities. If your business doesn’t accommodate them this is business you don’t have access to,” said Austin.

According to the June 2010  Government of Ontario study “Projecting the Economic Impacts of Increased Accessibility,” engaging the disabled in work could also increase the GDP per capita in Ontario by up to $600 per year.

As new standards are implemented to enable people with disabilities to achieve parity with average educational achievement in Ontario, there could be an additional boost to Ontario’s GDP per capita of up to $200, said the study.

When it comes right down to it, though, work is a need, but for many, it is also a source of fulfillment.

“You can teach somebody a skill, but you can’t teach someone the right attitude. Some of our candidates have been waiting a long, long time to get a job. And when they are coming to work they really want to be there,” said Gorman.

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