Flipping the Script on Disability in the Workplace

Katie Miller knows what it means to be put in a box.

Miller remembers one of her first jobs in the fast food industry, where she felt stuck cleaning tables instead of being given a chance at the cash register.

“When it comes to the hiring field, I find it’s quite difficult to be accepted when you’re labelled. Because there’s this idea that you’re bringing in this disability,” explained Miller, who has autism.

Today, Miller is part of a two-year B.C. research project that aims to flip the script on disability in the workplace.

The New Inclusive Economy is building a blueprint for how to open up B.C. businesses to disabled workers and create a labour market that works for everyone.

The project, led by Inclusion Powell River, is collecting inclusive labour practices from employers across the province with the aim of mapping out how to meet government goals to increase the employment rate of disabled people, who are statistically underemployed.

The 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability found as many as one in five Canadians between the ages of 24 and 64 is disabled, a broad term that covers many physical, developmental and psychological conditions and the innumerable personal experiences with them.

That survey — which takes place every five years — also showed that 59 per cent of working-age adults with disabilities were employed, compared to roughly 80 per cent of those without disabilities.

Professor Rachelle Hole, the co-director of the University of British Columbia’s Canadian Institute for Inclusion and Citizenship, chalks that up in part to employers’ hesitancy to hire disabled workers.

“The supply side really isn’t the issue when it comes to the employment or working-age adults with disabilities. It’s really that demand side. When you look at the research literature, over and over again, the research shows us that employers are hesitant,” Hole said, adding the reluctance comes from the belief that any accommodation provided for those workers will be costly.

“The counter-research shows that really isn’t the case,” Hole said. “It doesn’t cost a lot more money. There are opportunities through different provincial sector programs to offset if there are some of those costs. I think it really comes down to stereotypes and misinformation.”

That’s where the New Inclusive Economy comes in.

Project manager Leni Goggins says the research project’s ultimate goal isn’t just to offer possible solutions to underemployment, but to change how employers think about disabilities in the workplace.

Inclusion Powell River, where Goggins works, successfully obtained just over $800,000 in funding through a B.C. government program that aims to help workers and employers respond to labour market challenges.

“The main barriers to people getting jobs are not peoples’ disabilities, but the barriers because of their disabilities. Every time I’m asked by media about this, they ask, ‘What are the barriers to employment for people with disabilities?’ I’m continually flipping that,” Goggins said.

“I’m asking, ’What are the barriers employers are facing in hiring disabled people? Employers… feel unable to do this. We want to show the enabling conditions that make this possible so other employers can jump on the bandwagon.”

Last year, the B.C. government passed legislation giving it powers to create new accessibility regulations around employment and public services.

The Accessible British Columbia Act legislation requires the province to implement key actions in four areas, with a focus on cultural change: build a tool to provide feedback to government; develop a government accessibility plan; establish a provincial accessibility committee; and develop a set of regulations for organizations.

B.C. Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Nicholas Simons, a social worker by training, told The Tyee there is broad interest from employers in hiring people with disabilities.

“We know that there is an untapped labour supply if people want to have barriers to employment removed,” he said.

However, Simons believes that accomplishing that will mean shifting the onus to employers.

For example, some people with disabilities may be well-suited for a job but struggle in a traditional interview setting. In other cases, physical barriers or workplace design could prevent someone from being hired.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Development said about 21,000 people with disabilities accessed WorkBC employment services and supports in the 2021-22 fiscal year. The province has also committed to working with interested employers to facilitate hiring of more disabled workers, particularly in sectors such as tourism. But Simons says more can be done.

“When we compare ourselves with other jurisdictions, we see there is work to be done,” Simons said. “As a social worker, I think qualitative. I think people who want to work and whose goal is to participate in the workforce… I think anyone who wants to, should have the opportunity to do it.”

The New Inclusive Economy is not just pushing for more participation in the labour market. Miller, who has been a self-advocate for years, says that work also needs to be meaningful, while giving workers the opportunity to learn new skills and advance.

“I like the word inclusive, but you can also have people be inclusive as in, ‘We’ll hire you because you have a disability and you can be part of this economy, but we won’t teach you cash, we won’t teach you cooking,’” Miller said.

She refers again to that first job at a fast food restaurant.

“Most people can clean a table. But it takes real skill and knowledge to go out there and face your fears on a cash register, knowing there’s the possibility for mistakes and accepting the fact that those mistakes are going to improve you as a person,” Miller said.

Miller is also careful to note that no two disabled people are alike.

“Every intellectual disability is different based on the individual, not as the label of the disability. Just because I identify with autism and these are my experiences, someone else with autism will have a different experience than me,” Miller said.

What they do share, she adds, is a challenge overcoming the label that is sometimes attached to that word.

“My experience with [autism] is that people look at you a certain way and make their own assumptions based on a physical appearance. Then they start to think of you in terms of your way of thinking. Then they see you as a person. It should be person first,” Miller said.

Goggins says this concept is at the root of the New Inclusive Economy — the seeds of which were planted years ago when Inclusion Powell River opened a social enterprise designed for workers with developmental disabilities. The society obtained an exemption from the B.C. government so workers receiving disability payments could keep that cash on top of their salaries. What they found, she says, was that workers who had been on the brink of poverty had money to afford better transportation, to give and support family members, and to fully participate in the local economy.

In the end, the enterprise, Goggins says, was not economically viable, but showed the ripple effect of economic participation went well beyond a worker’s bank account.

Goggins says the New Inclusive Economy is now seeking employers who consider themselves inclusive to let the research team know what practices from their workplaces could be adapted provincewide.

Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee