How to create an office that’s accessible to all

Getting rid of the countless workforce barriers faced by people with disabilities isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also good for business.

Having completed his bachelor’s degree in political science and post-graduate degree from the University of Windsor law school, David Onley considered himself  “more than well qualified” for a job at a local financial institution.

But minutes into the interview, it was clear he wasn’t going to get the position. The familiar mix of awkward body language and a look in the hiring manager’s eyes that said, “I think I can wrap this up in ten minutes” hinted at discriminatory hiring policies.

And although a job in the financial district wasn’t in the cards, Onley went on to make strides in other industries: for almost 22 years, he served as a television reporter, first with CityTV, and then with CablePulse 24. In 2007, he was appointed to serve as Ontario’s lieutenant governor, becoming the first person with a physical disability to serve the position.

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Despite his success, Onley argues workplace discrimination is an all too common reality, keeping those with disabilities on the fringes of the labour market: “Exclusion starts with the reality of not being hired,” he says.

It’s a truth that’s evident in the statistics. A 2018 study from Statistics Canada found that among those aged 25 to 64, people with disabilities were 30% less likely to be employed compared to their able-bodied employees. And yet, individuals with disabilities have been proven to have lower absenteeism, increased productivity and higher job retention rates compared to their counterparts.

Tasked with reviewing the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, Onley released his findings this past March. He found that those with disabilities continue to face “soul-crushing” barriers in their attempt to navigate public and private spaces across the city. And for the one in five Canadians who present with a disability, that includes places of work.

Read more: Why corporate diversity programs fail, and what to do about it.

Advocates say that we need to make workplaces more accessible by addressing hiring practices, workplace culture and the physical spaces themselves. The best way to accomplish these goals is tackling barriers at each stage of the process in a systematic way.

Looking back on his experiences, Onley argues overcoming discriminative hiring practices involves overcoming personal biases that discredit those with disabilities. A 2017 study from Quebec, for example, found that those using a wheelchair were 54% less likely to be called in for a job interview, compared to their able-bodied counterparts.

“The easiest thing to do is presume someone can’t do the job because of their disability,” said Onley. “You as an employer have to push yourself past that and look at the person’s abilities.”

There are also more obvious physical barriers that riddle our surroundings, rendering them inaccessible to wheelchair users and people with other mobility challenges. Ashleigh Judge, for example, is an early childhood educator with cerebral palsy, who happens to be a wheelchair user. When applying for a job at the Play and Learn Nursery in Toronto, a pre-school for children with disabilities, her own disability became grounds for refusal—the Toronto Star reported that she wasn’t able to access the centre because it wasn’t wheelchair accessible.

Read more: Why Canada needs an old girls’ club

David Onley called the incident “disappointing,” but not surprising. And while it’s important to ensure a workplace is physically accessible, experts suggest measures must extend beyond this, into creating a space that values and welcomes people with disabilities. Conducting consultations and keeping an open line of communication with employees helps foster that environment.

Rich Donovon, CEO of the Return on Disability Group, advises employers to consult both accessibility experts and employees with disabilities on the barriers they face in the workplace.

“Businesses generally struggle with and forget to ask people with disabilities: ‘What do you need? What can we do to make your experience most pleasurable?’” he said.

David Lepofsky, a disability advocate and chair of accessibility for the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, notes this type of feedback helps gauge barriers faced by those with invisible disabilities that are not outwardly apparent, including autism, ADHD and chronic pain. For an employee on the autism disorder spectrum,  for example, a challenge might be the interview process itself, with complex open-ended questions heightening existing social anxiety and making it difficult for candidates to showcase their abilities.

Keeping that open line of communication with employees is not only crucial to addressing workplace barriers, but also helps those with disabilities feel valued and welcome. When Onley was first hired as a CityTV broadcaster back in the early 1980s, he found people were open to discussing what accommodations he would need to make his job easier. “My employers didn’t assume that there wouldn’t be barriers, but instead that we’d be able to work through them together,” said Onley.

But Lepofsky argues creating an accessible and welcoming environment  doesn’t happen unless employers make a conscious effort to create it. “If an employer decides right now that they want their workplace five to seven years from now to be accommodating for employees with a visual, physical or hearing disability,” he said, “we can do it, if we’re willing to plan for it.”

Planning for this workplace should start with small, gradual changes, he says. For blind individuals like himself, a daunting barrier can be simply finding the correct bathroom; male and female washrooms rarely have their own braille signs. The same goes for elevators and buildings. He argues this is a barrier employers can fix both “quickly and easily.”

“Each time you remove a barrier, you end up creating a more accessible workplace,” he said.

Onley preaches similar advice to employers: the path to accessibility should start as soon as employers realize barriers exist. “Once you know those barriers are there and you do nothing about them, it’s the same as putting up a sign that says ‘disabled people not welcome here’,” he said.