On March 9th, 2016, I had the pleasure of being a keynote speaker at one of the business conferences of the Conference Board of Canada, held in Mississauga. The topic was the Ontario Employment Standard and because it is so very important, and March of Dimes Canada is both a significant employer, an advocate and a consultant on accessibility standards, I am including my entire presentation here.
ACCESSIBLE EMPLOYMENT PRACTICES: A March of Dimes Perspective
Employment Services represents almost 18% of March of Dimes Canada’s budget, and probably a greater percentage of the actual work done by March of Dimes, given that we provide vocational assistance to over 7,000 people with disabilities each year. As like many Canadian families, I have firsthand experience with the economic, psychological and social impact of disability, having had a mother who suffered permanent mobility challenges from the time I was very young and she only 28 years old.
My focus today is on three aspects of today’s theme, Making Employment Practices More Accessible in Ontario. Firstly, to present the experience of March of Dimes, a major employer in the not for profit sector, secondly to underscore some of the “employment practices” that might most easily and immediately be considered in your own workplace, and thirdly to offer March of Dimes’ support to businesses which are committed to meeting the new Accessible Employment Standard in Ontario.
To set the context for March of Dimes experience as an employer, I think it’s very important to understand the philosophical, political and cultural underpinnings to our approach to fostering total acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities. March of Dimes was founded in the early 1950s to provide lifesaving support to people affected by poliomyelitis, and to fund a cure or treatment for survivors of this crippling disease. Once the polio vaccine was universally approved and immunization a public health program, March of Dimes offered a variety of services to the survivors who had lasting disabilities and through the 60s and 70s expanded to serve people with all types of physical disabilities. This was a time of changing attitudes about disability, from one of despair, isolation and even disengagement, to one of hopefulness, integration and engagement. In the mid to late 60s, those with disabilities had not yet been given many opportunities, but were beginning to move back to community from large scale residential facilities and from sheltered workshops into mainstream employment. Citizen advocacy was on the rise, and following the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., and then the women’s movement, the disability movement took hold in the 70s, with leadership from among people with lived experience. Sometimes, this was encouraged and even fostered by NGO’s and funded by government.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, March of Dimes had a workforce of about 180 people that rose to several hundred by 1984, and at that time 30% of our employees were people with disabilities. We were very much ahead of the pack, our employment statistics were better than perhaps those of any other Canadian company, in any sector, and the type of jobs were quite varied. The range of positions held by those with disabilities included Procurement Officer, Program Manager, Administrative Assistant, Regional Director, Assistive Devices Counsellor, Government Relations Assistant, and Fund raiser. There was no employment equity legislation, there were no regulated quotas, no ODA or AODA, but at March of Dimes, there was a strong board and management commitment to the recruitment and hiring of people with disabilities. One of the early successes related to a subsidiary entity called Operation Reliance, that was headed by a former Canadian Olympic skier, Wade Hampton, who himself became disabled as an adult when stricken with polio. Wade became a successful stock broker and radio broadcaster, but not before he dedicated himself to the pursuit of fair employment for people with disabilities. He was one of my early heroes, serving on our board for over 40 years and never losing his focus on equity for people with disabilities. He was a great example of what people with disabilities had to do to prove their employability, they had to be better than able-bodied employees, look particularly “normal”, not challenge their employer about accommodation needs, and take great risks, especially if working meant getting off income support when it was not easy to get back on such a program. March of Dimes sought to find like-minded and aligned employers, and in the late 1980s we closed all sheltered workshops in favour of vocational rehabilitation, job placement and job coaching and worked with employers to identify and sometimes modify work that could be done by an individual who had some limitations. Thus our Employment Services department became professionalized, work expanded and our clients became those job ready or seeking training and support to become job ready.
Wade Hampton represented March of Dimes in Ottawa when the late Honourable Flora McDonald first introduced Employment Equity legislation federally in 1995, requiring government and its agencies and contractors to set the example and hire people with disabilities. It was new territory in Canada, and March of Dimes was one of the first to push for this legislation. However, beginning in 1994, our own population of people with disabilities declined as a proportion of our workforce, and has steadily declined so I feel a need to address this with you.
Growth in our funding and service provision has largely been through expansion of attendant care support, this means hiring many front line workers who provide aids to daily living such as feeding, bathing, dressing and other personal services. This is work that requires a significant degree of strength and mobility. It has meant that if we include all employees, now only 3% of our workforce has a disability, but excluding the almost 900 attendants, 8% of our workforce today is composed of people with disabilities. We know that not everyone will self-identify on our employment equity hire form. No one is compelled to disclose of course. And we know from public policy and health studies that the largest disability affecting employees today is in the mental health field, so bear this in mind when implementing best practices because this population too must have your consideration, and will be far less likely to self-identify.
Through action and advocacy, we subsequently worked on provincial legislation to address all aspects of inclusion and were thus very much involved in the formation and adoption of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act which was proclaimed in 2001 and implemented in 2002, and later the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act of 2005. Because the ODA had limitations, was complaints based and did not achieve it’s hoped for outcome, successor legislation took a different approach. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the AODA, deviates significantly from the ODA, in that it proscribes standards for implementation, monitoring and compliance, and has an enforcement mechanism, though that has yet to be demonstrably implemented. This Act states what is to be done and does not focus on disability but on accessibility, laying out changes in many aspects of business processes and infrastructure, that could constitute a cultural shift, redefining how society should operate, and focusing on areas in which many sectors can improve in order to achieve full inclusion for people with disabilities.
The former legislation outlined a complaints based process for which a Human Rights complaint need be brought against an employer or facility that discriminated against a person or denied a service by virtue of that person’s disability. The onus was on that person to bring a compliant and prove discrimination. The onus for accessibility under the AODA is on the employer, owner or provider of a service to report that they meet the standard or if not, how they are going to go about meeting it and by when.
The AODA is a major move forward, a first in Canada, in setting standards or best practices in the areas of customer service, employment, transportation, communication, public spaces and the built environment. Failure to meet it can, but seldom does result in a penalty. This fact may not be helpful. March of Dimes has contributed to all the reports studying the impact of the AODA and supports a position for increased enforcement, for as with other legislation it makes a difference. For example, we don’t just talk about seat belts, speed limits, parking restrictions, no smoking environments, etc., they are all the law and all are enforced, sometimes with lots of peer pressure as well as legal mechanisms. However, our primary commitment is to educate the public, the owners and employers, and to help all achieve the desired outcome, full inclusion of people with disabilities.
So, how have we addressed the AODA internally and what has worked? We were sure we would satisfy every standard because internally we already had an affirmative hiring policy, accessible documentation, a policy to only lease or rent totally accessible facilities whether for office space or a one time meeting, conference or event; and that along with a resource tight budget, was not always easy. We had experience with adaptive equipment for employees with a disability, from accessible hardware and software, use of a TTY phone, to hosting a helper dog for a visually impaired employee. We had provided flex time and were the first in Canada to challenge the insurance industry on their exclusionary coverage of people with a prior condition, showing them that a permanent disability did not automatically mean a higher rate of claims for illness, but in fact that employees with disabilities often had better than average attendance records.
However, we did a thorough scan after first creating an internal AODA committee in 2011 with representation from every department, and from across the agency geographically. With the first and then subsequent standards, we did an audit and we formulated policies that articulated our commitment to meeting the AODA standard and even exceeding it. We invited people to tell us what needed improvement and we communicated our progress. We posted our commitment in every office and provided updates in our employee newsletter. Like all of you no doubt, in meeting the Customer Service Standard, we required every employee to complete a training program, ours is online, and we include a commitment to this standard in every vendor and consulting contract. For employees with a disability to see a company taking seriously the fulfilment of their AODA commitment, adds credibility, builds loyalty, reduces feelings of exceptionality and builds team work.
I would like to provide a few facts for you to consider how far we have come, know how far we have yet to go, and to see the pathway to getting there. Let me cite an example of a major cultural shift, affecting people born with a development disability, often complicated with physical limitations.
At the turn of the 20th century, the average life expectancy of a person with Down’s Syndrome was 9 years and in the 1950s it was about age 21. The life expectancy for people with this condition has slowly risen each decade, to the point that now there are national and international meetings about people Aging with a Development Disability. In the 1980s, there were only sheltered workshops for people with an intellectual or development disability, but a decade or two earlier, there were only residential facilities where there was no work, little if any activities, and probably no intellectual stimulation as our ideas were archaic, suggesting that people with a developmental disability could not learn. Medical advancements as well as social advancements mean that people with such difficulties have been helped to live longer, to live in the community, to receive an education, to achieve a level of independence, and to contribute to society.
The Houston Chronicle online has been running a series of excellent articles on employment for people with disabilities, covering the law, statistics, workplace practices and even employee responsibilities. Here’s an example:
Employment can be a difficult prospect for adults with developmental disabilities, and the U.S. Census estimates that only 20 percent of developmentally disabled adults are employed nationally. Yet jobs are important for disabled adults who seek greater independence and financial self-reliance. Knowing the types of jobs available for developmentally disabled adults is an important step in preparing for employment prospects.
Today, we know that people with an intellectual impairment can be found working in many different settings, from retail shops, to restaurants to packaging and more, and it only requires that one assess the exact needs or tasks to be done and provide on the job training and support for the successful placement of a person with a developmental disability. Knowing the exact tasks, matching the individual to those tasks is what is primary.
March of Dimes had a high proportion of employees who had had polio, and became a leading advocate for those who years after contracting the disease experienced Post-Polio Syndrome and often were too fatigued to continue to work, retired young, or even passed away. Yet, we have never moved off our position that people of all abilities be considered for employment, that it’s important to match skills and knowledge with the real needs of an employer, and to provide job accommodations to enable employment for people with disabilities.
I would like to cite some examples to give credence to what I am saying.
In the 90s we acquired software driven by speech for an employee who had a significant physical disability that included spasticity so typing was not easy. She was assessed as typing 8 words per minute, but she did all of the job well and we had no issues. We could see the huge struggle that this employee endured and the extra hours she worked to meet the job requirements. With provincial funding, we were able to add a talk-to-type program to her computer. This required a lot of work on her part initially as she trained the software to recognize her speech patterns and pronunciation in order to produce accurate copy. In addition, this young woman could not adequately handle paper so filing was difficult. When we learned that her father assisted her on weekends to get her filing done, we changed the job so that someone else did filing and she focused on key aspects of the job. For despite the level of difficulty that she experienced due to cerebral palsy, this employee had a BA from a very reputable Canadian university and had shown excellent skills with people, in government relations, in consumer service, and in her work ethic.
For many years, we had a Community Services Manager at head office who had a vision impairment, so much so that she required a guide dog in order to navigate the building, the streets, and the wider community. Despite that, this Manager worked on a computer, handled our public advocacy portfolio, handled municipal representation on our behalf, spoke publicly and organized meetings, events and a variety of activities for people with disabilities. The accommodation that we provided was first and foremost, a welcome mat for the guide dog, and secondly, software that enabled the employee to work with little vision. This individual was raising three biological children and seemed to have no end of energy as a parent and a full time employee.
Today, I have a few more current examples of accessible business practices for your consideration. These practices include documenting individual work accommodation plans for employees when required, especially after an injury or illness, create an active return to work process, as part of the integrated disability management system, and overall provide support and flexibility to enable an employee to assess their own capabilities and contribute ideas on how best to accommodate.
For example, an employee with low vision provided her supervisor and our Health & Safety Coordinator with medical documentation and an assessment on her functional abilities. She required some assistive device and ergonomically appropriate equipment. Specialists in the enforcement of visual aids were consulted and priority given to addressing her IT needs also. With assistance from an outside vendor, she received special software and the applications she needed to be successful.
In the last two years, we modified duties for a long term employee returning to work after a lengthy illness, returned a worker to work post-surgery, and more recently helped an individual return who suffered a concussion on her off time return to work. Each situation warranted very separate special consideration. The first employee had travel significantly reduced and some aspects of her job shared, but after several months, she chose to retire because of unrelenting fatigue. The second employee chose to reduce to part time, and the third employee has received some office set up modifications, flex hours and works more from home as she experiences a transition post-concussion, back to normality.
None of these experiences are unusual and out of the norm. With an increasingly aging work force, they will be increasingly normal. Each of the three disabled employees had more than 15 years of service and range in age from 48-71. I believe key to their successful re-integration in the work place is respect, communication and accommodation. Not to provide accessibility or accommodation will cost an employer some of his or her best talent, waste training investments and lose role models and knowledge transfer agents. Hiring new people who have physical disabilities will address talent gaps, societal inequities, provide committed, dedicated employees, enhance customer loyalty, enrich the workplace, and of course avoid penalties. Doing it for the right reason will bring personal gratification.
At March of Dimes Canada we also know that employers want motivated employees who are reliable and dependable. It’s important to match candidates to the exact needs of the employer and get someone “fit” for the position. This is true regardless of a disability, but even more so when placing a person with a disability. The nature of work is changing the prevalence of disability is changing. We need collaborative approaches to serve both the employee and employers. The Accessible Employment Standard of the AODA is a great starting point, because by removing barriers to employment, the goal of candidates increases.
What can March of Dimes offer to assist business? Whether public or private sector, small, medium or larger companies, our consulting arm, AccessAbility Advantage®, can help you address each of the AODA Standards. Our joint venture partnership with Quadrangle Architects assures quality in accessibility audits and designs for the built environment, and our various assessors and auditors have experience and training in many aspects of the various standards.
March of Dimes continues to focus on outreach and recruitment of people with disabilities, through a number of steps, including advertising that we are an equity employer, offering a welcoming work environment for people with disabilities, and an accessible workplace. We continue to strive to be among the best in class by addressing all of the AODA standards. I want to add something very relevant that I learned from our employees who participated in our recent Quality of Work Life survey, a survey conducted every 3 years across our organization, by an independent research firm. While the results on a large number of attributes is very good, you might be surprised by the response to a question about what drives employee engagement, obviously an attribute we value very highly. High engagement generally means high level of satisfaction, loyalty and commitment. In both our 2012 and 2015 surveys, organizational support for diversity was identified as one of the top three drivers of engagement. In 2012 organizational diversity was the number one driver and received a score of 82.3% while in 2015 it was ranked 3rd in importance by the average increased to 84.5% (client satisfaction and employee’s role in the organizational vision were rated 1st and 2nd). The description of this attribute is as follows: March of Dimes Canada values and promotes an environment that supports physical accessibility. People feel that MODC respects and values people of diverse groups including people with disabilities as well as those from minority cultures and ethnic groups.
Our overall focus is on eliminating or preventing discrimination by changing society, creating accessibility for all people, and understanding that everyone in society needs to be taken into consideration, in order to optimize their independence and integration, making an inclusive society.