Accessibility for People with Disabilities Legislation
Mark Wafer, who owns six Tim Horton’s stores in the greater Toronto area, believes legislation to make workplaces accessible to people with disabilities is necessary because in many cases companies simply wouldn’t invest the money and effort without it. “But there’s a far better reason for making your business accessible to people with disabilities, both as customers and employees,” he says. “It just makes really good business sense.”
Over the past 16 years, Mr. Wafer has hired more than 70 people with disabilities and he has no doubt that it has given him a competitive advantage. “I’ve hired people with disabilities for jobs ranging from customer service all the way up to management. They’re in meaningful positions. That means they get equal pay. There are no subsidies from the government,” Mr. Wafer says. “What happens over a period of time is you start to notice that people with disabilities tend to stay with you for much longer, because it’s taken them so long to get the job in the first place. That’s a tangible benefit, because turnover is expensive. The other upside is because you’ve created an inclusive workforce the other employees want to stay, too. They want to be part of something special.” As a result, while the typical turnover rate for Tim Horton’s stores in southern Ontario is between 70% and 80%, at Mr. Wafer’s stores, it is 35%.
It’s time to dispel some of the myths that hold back employers from hiring people with disabilities, says Joe Dale, project manager at Rotary at Work and executive director at Ontario Disability Employment. “There are all sorts of myths: that it’s going to cost them more; that productivity is not going to be as good; and that employees with disabilities are going to miss a lot more work. While there isn’t enough of a strong research base that dispels those myths, we do have lots of anecdotal information that does,” he says. “What’s more, I think people are pretty resilient, but particularly so, people with disabilities who have found ways to get around their disabilities and can be more creative than others. They develop great problem-solving skills. I am not sure most employers necessarily understand that yet, or what a valuable labour source people with disabilities can be.”
Rotary at Work has helped a growing number of employers dispel the myths by connecting them to employees with disabilities. “Rotary at Work reflects an important partnership between Community Living Ontario and Ontario Rotary Clubs to assist Ontarians with disabilities to find appropriate employment by forging relationships with businesses,” says David Onley, Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor.
Mr. Onley is a shining example: afflicted by polio at a young age, he suffered partial paralysis. After extensive physical therapy, however, Mr. Onley regained the use of his hands and arms and partial use of his legs. He is able to walk with leg braces and canes or crutches, but he generally prefers to get around using his electric scooter. He is able to drive a car using hand controls for acceleration and braking.
Another issue many companies don’t understand - much to their detriment - is the fact that when they make their business accessible to employees with disabilities, they’re also making them accessible to customers with disabilities. “If you use the same business model when looking at creating accessible retail space, the cost/benefit ratio also favours a return on your investment,” Mr. Wafer says.
In fact, Statistics Canada pegs the number of people with disabilities at around 16.5% of the population. “If you think about it in other terms, that’s the combined population of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba,” Mr. Dale says. “It’s the largest minority in the country. It’s a significant niche for businesses to tap into.”
And that’s what Mr. Wafer has found to be the case. At one of his stores, he worked with Excellence Canada to ensure the building met Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) standards. Included in the upgrades was a simple system in the drive-thru for deaf people. “It’s just a sign with a bell that says 'if you are deaf or hard of hearing, please press this button for better customer service and drive to the window' ,” Mr. Wafer says. “When they come to the window, if they can’t tell us what they want, we have an order-assist pad they can use to order.” Today, his Tim Horton’s drive-through attracts deaf customers who would never have previously have used a drive thru.
The opportunities for businesses that understand the advantages of hiring disabled people as well as developing goods and services for them exist in every industry. One industry where there is enormous potential, however, is technology, which, through a combination of legislation and efforts by organizations such as the Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC), has seen progress in developing technology and applications that are accessible to people with disabilities - although there is still a long way to go. The IDRC is a research and development centre at OCAD University that works with an international community of open source developers, designers, researchers, advocates, and volunteers to ensure that emerging information technology and practices are designed inclusively.
“We really need legislation for cultural change,” says Jutta Treviranus, professor and director, Inclusive Design Research Centre and Inclusive Design Institute at OCAD University. “Even if people don’t follow the letter of the law, it increases awareness. It’s a necessary way for organizations to realize that yes, this is a right people have and we do need to attend to it. But the practicality needs to be supported by other things, the tools and necessary resources. There’s also an amazing opportunity here. The market size of individuals with disabilities around the world is approaching the market size of China, so if there’s an organization that takes this on and begins to support that market, the growth opportunity is huge.”