It won’t be long before companies in the province of Ontario, like companies in some other jurisdictions around the world, will be obliged by law to accommodate people with disabilities. These authors, who have extensive experience in researching and implementing workplace disability programs and initiatives, provide a concise and comprehensive “how to” for organizations on everything from defining “disability” to meeting their ultimate obligations.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) has set a goal of making the province of Ontario fully accessible for persons with disabilities by the year 2025. The Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services has identified five important areas of compliance for businesses and organizations that provide goods and services to people in Ontario: customer service, transportation, information and communications, the physical space, and employment. Given the long list of activities and accommodations suggested in each of these areas, full accessibility by 2025 is a very ambitious goal.

How can businesses become fully accessible, and why should they bother? We argue that Canadian businesses should embrace the 2025 goal, not because it is a government requirement, but because becoming fully accessible is good for business. The purpose of this article is to help businesses identify the benefits of accommodating people with disabilities as well as information and resources about the accommodation process. We begin by providing a definition of disability status and the duty to accommodate. We then provide some statistics on disabilities in Canada and make the business case for diversity. Next, we describe the broad range of initiatives taken by Scotiabank, a major Canadian financial services institution, to provide an example of actions businesses can take to make accommodations effectively. We end with answers to some frequently asked questions about accommodating persons with disabilities.

What is a disability?

Definitions of “disability” are evolving and the contextual focus has been shifting in recent years.

Traditional perceptions have revolved around a biomedical definition, which takes the view that a disability is a result of a biomedical abnormality or medical condition. Implicit in this definition is the perception that people who have disabilities are “less than normal.” Great emphasis is placed on “curing” or treating the individual rather than removing barriers to participation.

More recent social/environmental definitions have taken the view that people with disabilities should not be perceived as “less than” other members of society, only “different”, in the same way that other groups within society are “different.” As a result, this definition encourages people to view disability as a social condition that suffers from oppression, comparable to sexism or racism. This definition encourages society to shift the focus from “cure” to the elimination of barriers and increased participation of people with disabilities.

A Disability Rights model expresses this view in a political framework: It is considered a societal responsibility to ensure that people with disabilities are given the support that they need to participate and contribute to society.

In recent years, this thinking has been incorporated internationally into legislation, including the explicit recognition of the rights of persons with disabilities within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and various provincial codes which include specific references to the Duty to Accommodate.

For instance, the Ontario Human Rights Code defines a disability to include conditions that have developed over time, those that result from an accident, or those that have been present from birth. It includes physical, mental, and learning disabilities and it does not matter whether the condition is visible. For example, persons with mental disorders, sensory disabilities (such as hearing or vision limitations) and epilepsy are all protected under the Code. The Code protects people from the unequal effects of discrimination. For example, a person may not actually have a disability, but may be perceived to have one, and the Code protects a person who is the victim of discrimination because another thinks that the person has a disability.

What is the Duty to Accommodate?

The Duty to Accommodate means making adjustments in the workplace to allow persons with disabilities to function as fully as possible. Employees, employers, unions, and professional associations all have responsibilities for the success of the accommodation process, as shown in Exhibit 1 below.

Source: Ontario Human Rights Commission website: http://ohrc.on.ca/english/publications/disability-policy-fact3.shtml.

Best practice in accommodating persons with disabilities upholds three principles. First, the principle of respect and dignity means that accommodation is provided in a manner that most respects the dignity of the person. For instance, a common example of an accommodation that demonstrates little respect for the dignity of the person is a wheelchair entrance over a loading dock or through a service area or garbage room. Persons with disabilities should have the same opportunity as others to enter a building in a manner that is as convenient and pleasant for them as it is for others.

Second, the principle of individualized accommodation recognizes the fact that there is no set formula for accommodating people with disabilities. Each person’s needs are unique and must be considered afresh when an accommodation request is made.

Third and finally, the principle of integration and full inclusion requires barrier-free and inclusive building designs and the removal of existing barriers in physical structures. Preventing and removing barriers means persons with disabilities should be able to access their environment and face the same duties and requirements as everyone else with dignity and without impediment.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission encourages businesses to draw up plans for accommodating the needs of persons with disabilities. If a plan has been approved by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and if it is being followed, the plan provides the business with a defense against complaints.

How many Canadians have disabilities?

There have been a number of surveys to measure the number of people with disabilities in Canada. Each has had its own methodology and objectives, and the results have varied greatly.

Many people quote the latest official StatsCan figures. But even these have moved up and down. Results for 1986 indicated that 13.2% of the population had a disability. In 1991, this figure rose to 15.5%, while the latest number has dropped to 12.4%, in spite of the aging population.

It’s generally estimated that 1 in 6 or 1 in 7 Canadians has a disability. Working-age adults comprise the largest group. In the U.K. there have been estimates which claim that “one in four people …is either disabled or close to someone who is.”

Four surveys which have been conducted over the last few decades in Canada have included:

the HALS Survey (Health and Activity Limitation Survey)(1986, 1991)

The 1991 survey found that16.8% of the population had a disability (17.4% in Ontario, 23.8% in Nova Scotia)

the PALS Survey (Participation and Activity Limitation Survey)(2001)

14.6% nationally, and 16% in Ontario, 20.1% in Nova Scotia

NPHS (National Population Health Survey)(1996)

15.3% nationally, and 13.1% in Ontario, 22.4% in Nova Scotia

IALS (International Adult Literacy Survey – which used a broad and general definition of disability)(1994)

28.4% nationally, and 29.7% in Ontario, 29.3% in Nova Scotia

Data from the 1991 census combined with HALS data indicate that the percentage of those reporting disabilities ranged higher than average in urban areas (between 18.7% and 24.5%, with some areas reporting as high as 37%)

Why are the numbers under-reported?

It can be generally assumed that statistics will be below the actual numbers for a variety of reasons.

From the measurement perspective, this may be related to either the definitions used, or the methodology, or the research questions used to conduct the survey. Or, it may even be related to the objectives of the survey (is the survey looking for a high number which is inclusive of all disabilities? Or, is the survey being used to focus on a particular sector of the population?). Have people with disabilities living in institutions been excluded?

From the other side of the statistical process it should be recognized that many people with disabilities are personally reluctant to self-identify. In part, this may be due to the “historical” stigma associated with disability. A poorly phrased or ambiguous research question may encourage someone to respond negatively, and not self-identify. These “subjective” reactions may skew the “perceived” findings of an “objective” survey.

A comprehensive statistical measurement would include people with:

  • diabetes
  • facial disfigurement
  • mental health
  • blind or low vision
  • deaf or hard of hearing
  • arthritis
  • learning disabilities
  • mobility (including wheelchair users)
  • amputation
  • stuttering
  • speech and language
  • environmental disabilities

It can be assumed that a percentage of any of these populations might be reluctant to self-identify, or may not be included in a survey’s methodology.

The bottom line: What is the business case for accommodating persons with disabilities?

There is a very powerful business case for recognizing this increasing demographic. It has been estimated that people with disabilities currently account directly for up to $50 billion annually in spending power. It has also been estimated that each person with a disability influences the spending decisions of 12 to 15 other people.

The impact of persons with disabilities on business will increase rapidly over the next few decades, as more of the baby boomer population edges its way into the seniors cohort. Although the PALS survey likely underestimates the number of Canadians with disabilities, even those figures are startling when broken out by age group, as in the figure below.

Data Source: Statistics Canada: A Profile of Disability in Canada, 2001 (Catalogue no. 89-577-XIE).

Whereas the PALS survey estimated that 3.9 percent of persons aged 15 to 24 have a disability, that figure rises to 7.1 percent for those aged 25 to 44, 16.7 percent for those aged 45 to 64, 31.5 percent for those aged 65 to 74, and 53.3 percent for those 75 and over. Hence, an aging population means that a substantial number of both workers and customers will have disabilities. That means that accommodating disabilities will be necessary to retain the increasing numbers of workers and customers.

Retaining the skills and knowledge of aging workers is likely to become essential at this time in history, when the number of retirements is outpacing the number of new workers entering the labor force. And retaining loyal customers in the age groups making the highest salaries and holding the vast majority of the nation’s wealth can only be good for business. Businesses that place a priority on inclusion and accessibility within their workplaces, public relations initiatives and overall corporate culture will have a distinct advantage and competitive edge over businesses which lag behind.

Best practices: The Scotiabank example

Scotiabank takes a proactive strategy with respect to the inclusion of people with disabilities. It has been recognized for its efforts with the 2007 Career Edge Award as the financial institution with the greatest number of internships for students with disabilities and employees in transition. The managers of staffing and recruitment on the bank’s Shared Services team (that support hiring managers across all lines of business) have implemented a number of initiatives:

  • A dedicated resource in the role of a Manager, Workforce Diversity, focused on the inclusion of Persons with Disabilities.

  • The Scotiability Fund, a dedicated fund that provides resources for accommodation measures, effectively eliminating funding concerns for managers providing accommodations to employees.

  • The incorporation of accessibility standards to ensure all technology applications and web sites are accessible to employees with disabilities. For instance, the Scotiabank Group Employee Website – HR Passport – continues to undergo extensive re-design to make various reports and support tools accessible to JAWS (screen reading software) for blind users.

  • Career fairs that focus on students with disabilities have been organized across various colleges and universities in Ontario.

  • Mock interviews that have been conducted with students with disabilities in order to provide résumé feedback and enhance interview skills.

  • Recruitment ads that are specifically targeted to attract candidates with disabilities have been featured in magazines and journals designed for this population.

  • Events geared toward people with disabilities, such as People in Motion, are staffed by various Scotiabank employees in order to understand the accommodation needs of customers with disabilities and future employees.

  • An annual satisfaction survey that captures the climate of employees with disabilities in order to measure accommodation satisfaction and promotional opportunities.

  • A round table that has been established in conjunction with other major banks in order to identify and eliminate barriers that exist regarding assistive technology standards, compatibility issues and web access for all users.

Acknowledging that attitudinal barriers are still the number one barrier to employment for people with disabilities, Scotiabank has developed a new recruitment strategy for persons with disabilities. In spite of having excellent credentials and experience, these candidates are often overlooked for employment opportunities. Perhaps it is because of the myths and stereotypes that have surrounded disability in the past. Perhaps it is because managers do not understand that the cost of accommodation is very low and that Scotiabank has a centralized accommodation fund that will cover the cost of any devices or workstation modification. Perhaps it is because of assumptions that people who work differently might be less productive or more fragile. On the other hand, maybe people are just simply afraid that they might say or do the wrong thing, and so believe that it is easier to avoid the situation altogether.

The new face-to-face networking sessions at Scotiabank are designed to overcome these attitudinal barriers by introducing hiring managers and job candidates with disabilities in a casual environment. For the first 30 minutes of a session each of the hiring managers at the table provides a brief overview of their role and explains what the environment is like in their respective areas. The candidates then introduce themselves, explain their backgrounds, educational and employment history, and what they hope to achieve from a career perspective.

Following lunch, the hiring managers and the guests mingle, discuss various opportunities, and exchange ideas and questions. The networking session concludes with a tour of the work space.

The Integrated Support Systems group (ISS) has been a leader in this endeavor. As a result of these networking sessions, ISS has hired eight candidates with disabilities on contract and permanent positions. Because of this outcome, Scotiabank plans to incorporate these networking sessions across all lines of business in the future.

Retention is a key factor in the successful employment of people with disabilities, and Scotiabank recognizes that the accommodation process is ongoing and must be revisited, as each employee’s needs change over time. The accommodation process at Scotiabank engages both the employee and the hiring manager in the assessment process. There is a safe and welcoming environment for promoting continued dialogue. Importantly, a centralized accommodation fund ensures that there are no funding conflicts for managers.

Altogether, this set of ongoing initiatives combined with proactive development of new activities as new opportunities are identified makes Scotiabank a leader in the employment of persons with disabilities.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services web site provides numerous tips for businesses working to better accommodate persons with disabilities as both employees and customers. Here are some of their valuable suggestions. For further information, the reader is encouraged to visit the website at http://www.mcss.gov.on.ca/mcss/english/pillars/accessibilityOntario/.

How do I know whether a person has a disability?

Job candidates and employees are not required to disclose disability status to employers or prospective employers. Employers are not allowed to ask questions about disability status on either a job application or in an interview. The Canadian Human Rights Commission suggests that the employer should disclose any information on medically related requirements or standards early in the application process, then ask whether the applicant has any condition that could affect his or her ability to do the job, preferably during a pre-employment medical examination. A disability is only relevant to job ability if it threatens the safety or property of others or prevents the applicant from safe and adequate job performance, even when reasonable efforts are made to accommodate the disability.

To encourage employees to disclose, employers can express their willingness to provide reasonable accommodation for workers with disabilities and create a history of treating workers with disabilities in a respectful and confidential manner. Methods of demonstrating a welcoming environment include:

  • Asking if job candidates have any accommodation needs when they are contacted to do an interview.
  • Training front-line staff greeting job candidates on how to interact with people with disabilities.
  • Providing training for supervisors and managers so that they understand how to support employees to do their jobs well.
  • Asking employees what job-related support they need, and follow up to see if something needs to be changed.
  • Meeting with staff, if needed, before a new employee with disabilities starts work. Your team may be worried if they don’t know how to interact with colleagues with a disability.
  • Assessing your workplace to make sure it meets occupational health and safety rules.

How can I tell whether a person with a disability is able to do the job?

The employer’s first step is to identify the essential duties of the job. Once the essential skills, knowledge, and desirable qualities an applicant could bring to the job are identified, the employer should ensure that all information requested on job applications and in employment interviews is essential to the performance of the job. All job candidates should be subject to the same selection process to allow the best person to be chosen for the job. By asking all job candidates how they would fulfill each job requirement, the employer can obtain full information in order to make a fair and effective selection decision.

How far do I have to go to accommodate workers with disabilities?

Employers are required to accommodate workers with disabilities up to the point of undue hardship to the business. Undue hardship means excessive disruption or interference with the employer’s operation, or financial costs that would be prohibitive to the point that it would alter the essential nature or substantially affect the viability of the enterprise.

Many accommodations are relatively easy and inexpensive for the employer. Employers may have to look at the workload and job tasks of the group to see if tasks need to be reassigned to or from different employees. While employers will find that a single accommodation works well for many different employees, the principle of individualized accommodation is important to uphold. The best source of information about accommodations is the employees themselves – they’re the experts in what they need. Employers should:

  • Listen to what employees say about their disabilities and what they think is needed;
  • Ask questions when they don’t understand;
  • Educate themselves about the specific disability issues faced by their employees;
  • Be creative, flexible and look for new ways of doing things; and
  • Get employees to test any special equipment or device before they are purchased.

The Supreme Court of Canada’s 1999 decision in British Columbia (Public Service Employee Relations Commission) v. BCGSEU (known as the Meiorin decision) has radically changed the way employers are required to think about and deal with accommodation. Prior to the Meiorin decision, reasonable accommodation was individualized, requiring each person with a disability to disclose and problem-solve to reach an accommodation agreement with their employer. While that process allowed individuals the ability to fully participate at work, the problem was defined as belonging to a particular individual, rather than as society’s responsibility to ensure inclusion. The Meiorin decision changed that view, and now employers are responsible for setting up their workplaces up in such a way as to prevent as many of these problems as possible. For instance, wheelchair ramps are now expected to be in place, rather than added when someone requires one. Meiorin recognizes, in addition, that even if businesses were to plan ahead to try to accommodate all possible needs, there would still be individual accommodations required.

Changing perspectives

A commonly told story in seminars about accommodating disabilities describes the experience of a disability activist, who is a lawyer and blind. One day in court in the middle of a case, chaos broke out. When the lawyer asked his assistant what had happened, he was informed that the power had gone out and there were no lights. Court was adjourned until the following day. As he remarked to a colleague “You sighted people ask for so much! You want every room in every building wired for lighting and you just can’t function without it. Do you know how much that costs?”

This story is wonderful for changing the perspective of persons who do not (yet) have a disability. We need to realize that we are in a world that already accommodates many of our needs. True openness to diversity requires a willingness to extend such accommodations to everyone, including those whose circumstances may differ a bit from our own.


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About the Author

Alison Konrad is a Professor and Corus Entertainment Chair in Women in Management at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. Contact: akonrad@ivey.ca.

About the Author

Kaye Leslie is Manager, Workforce Diversity, Scotiabank.

About the Author

Don Peuramaki is President of Fireweed Media Productions Inc., an independent production company owned and operated by people with disabilities.

About the Author

Kaye Leslie is Manager, Workforce Diversity, Scotiabank.

About the Author

Don Peuramaki is President of Fireweed Media Productions Inc., an independent production company owned and operated by people with disabilities.