(October 5, 2021) October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (DEAM). The movement takes place each year to acknowledge and promote the contributions and inclusion of people with disabilities in the workplace.
Disabilities are complex and can include both physical and cognitive impairments; some people are born with disabilities, and some develop them later in life. According to the 2017 Survey on Disability Employment, one in five (20%) people over the age of 15 in Canada live with a disability. Unfortunately, the employment rates for those with disabilities are roughly two-thirds the general population due to lack of accommodations and access in workplaces.
The charitable sector employs more than 2.5 million people—or 12% of the population—and can play a significant role in creating more inclusive and accessible workplaces.
The push for disability as an aspect of inclusive hiring is on the rise in Canada and around the world. The launch of the We The 15 campaign at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics and creation of The Valuable 500 are just two examples of the fight against workplace ableism.
This is welcome news for former fundraiser turned openly autistic entrepreneur, Wanda Deschamps – founder and principal of Liberty Co. Wanda is a vocal advocate and champion for the disability #InclusionRevolution.
“While many organizations in the charitable sector do great work serving persons with disabilities, what is really missing is inclusive leadership and board representation from the disability community. Persons with disabilities need to see themselves at all levels in an organization, and right now that is not happening.”
The 2020 Diversity of Nonprofit and Charity Board Members survey identified that only 6% of those surveyed identified as persons with disabilities, with the majority of those in organizations serving people with disabilities.
Lia Grimanis, founder of Up with Women, agrees with Deschamps’ assessment of the sector. Grimanis has autism and notes that most employers still function with “neurotypical” employees in mind. As someone living with neurodiversity, she has struggled to fit into the traditional workplace model despite being an effective executive. Grimanis was fired numerous times for behaviours deemed “inappropriate” for the workplace before she realized that the problem wasn’t her, it was the rigidity and outdated expectations of her employers.
“The intolerance for disabled employees in the charitable sector mirrors the intolerances in many other parts of society,” notes Grimanis. “We have a general inability to adapt to the different ways people move through the world, and that limits our ability to have a truly inclusive sector.”
Grimanis emphasizes that truly inclusive employers will meet people where they are and embrace differences. “No amount of regulation will bring inclusivity to the forefront. True inclusivity requires a thoughtful approach, and investment in resources, which are deeply unpopular with donors,” she says.
While public sentiments around so-called “overhead costs” are changing, many charities and nonprofit organizations have been reluctant to spend money on adaptive technology and equipment in the workplace. And lack of financial investment is a significant contributor to the lack of inclusive workplaces.
One must only look at the largest fundraising conference in Canada to see how accessibility is often at the bottom of the priority list even by those organizations who are tasked with mitigating inequity.
AFP Congress, put on by the Greater Toronto Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), is the largest fundraising conference in Canada and bills itself as the “the leading opportunity for fundraisers to connect with and learn from your peers across the country.”
For the past 27 years, AFP’s Toronto Congress has hosted up to 1,000 fundraisers but it took the global pandemic to ensure that sign language and real-time closed captions were made available to participants. While adaptive technology and modifications can be expensive, the larger cost to the sector in excluding people with disabilities is also significant. As the charitable sector continues to focus on inclusion, equity, and diversity, issues around accessibility must not be left behind. In doing so, charities are contributing to barriers and discriminatory behaviour.
Disability advocate Max Lieberman says employers can help create more inclusive workplaces and it starts with education. Last summer, Lieberman founded Liebs & Co, a company dedicated to educating employers about disabilities in the workplace. The company’s mission is personal for Lieberman, who has spent his career fighting for accommodations in the workplace for dysgraphia and dyscalculia.
“There are some really simple things employers can do that will make candidates with disabilities feel more comfortable,” Lieberman says, “and if you are proactive in asking questions, you will alleviate the burden from the disabled person, which goes a long way in building a rapport.”
When interviewing job candidates, Lieberman suggests asking if they have any accommodations that will help them be successful in the workplace. During the application process, he says to be sure to provide a candidate with a contact in human resources who can provide accommodations for the interview process, such as closed captions, accessible meeting spaces or specialized transportation requirements. And, finally, giving interview questions to a candidate in advance can be good for everyone.
“As someone who struggles with answering questions on the fly, having interview questions in advance allows me to formulate my thoughts and provide better answers,” says Lieberman.” Every individual has unique needs and skills and should be given the option to have those needs met, he says.
Ontario-based communications officer in donor engagement, Charlotte Clarke, knows the value of flexible employers and adaptive workplaces. Clarke lives with agoraphobia and is a highly sensitive person (HSP), which makes travel to-and-from an office outside of her neighborhood extremely difficult. Clarke also found working in an office environment extremely stressful if she doesn’t have access to a quiet space when doing focused work.
““There are not many communications, strategic or management that don’t require you to travel” she says, ““and this meant I often had to take on roles that were not in my specific skill set but were close by – ironically, these were often front line care roles that were much more overstimulating and not my area of strength, leading to a cycle of mental health challenges.”
Clarke spent many years forcing herself to adapt to employer requirements out of a fear of being seen as demanding or a problematic employee. The toll on her mental health and well-being was significant, so she had to work part-time. Noting how there is often a tension between the needs of the person with disabilities and the needs of employers, it creates a cognitive dissonance for the employee, and often a lot of internalized shame.
“An employer may not always be able to accommodate your needs,” she says, “but you should not feel ashamed in asking for accommodations. You have a right to be accommodated in the workplace. The world deserves what you have to offer.”
“It is so important for people to be able to come to work as their true selves,” states Grimanis.
“When we limit people by not accommodating their disabilities, we limit our organizations. We limit our thinking and our creativity. We limit the lived experiences we have around the table.”
Her sentiments are backed up by the 2018 Conference Board of Canada report which notes that reasonable investments in workplace access would allow over 550,000 Canadians with disabilities to participate more fully in the workforce, increasing GDP by $16.8 billion by 2030.
COVID-19 forced many organizations to build remote or hybrid work environments which Lieberman says benefits employees with disabilities. He hopes that employers will continue to support remote work as it ensures that people with disabilities reduce transportation and other costs associated with an office-only environment.
“Employees with disabilities are well situated to work from home. It’s often the best place for us to be.” Lieberman loves working from home with his two-year old beagle Churchill—an office companion who often encourages him to take healthy walk breaks.
As for the benefits to the disabled employee, they are priceless. The price of human dignity in the workplace cannot be calculated.
Just ask Charlotte Clarke.
“I went from being someone who was depressed, stressed out, and unemployed, to a thriving employee,” she Clarke, who now thrives professionally in an organization near her home that has the capacity to accommodate her needs, and make the most of her talents. “I have learned over my career how to advocate for myself and my needs in the workplace, and I am no longer afraid to ask for accommodations.”
Clarke says although she is not required to disclose her disability to her colleagues, she now does so out of a desire to act as a role model for others.
“I went from being someone who felt I was someone who was failing because I was disabled, to someone who can say ‘these are the accommodations I need to thrive’ and then do really high quality work for my organization. And that is amazing.”
For more information, please visit https://supportedemployment.ca/deam/ and participate in the 31-days of Inclusion Revolution.