There was a time when the idea of disabled persons in the workplace was not just unlikely, but inconceivable. Greg Bechard, executive director of Elmira District Community Living, marvels at what a difference 30 years can make.
“Integrated education has been going on, to one degree or another, since the mid- to late-‘70s,” said Bechard. “What we’re seeing occur now is, young people have grown up with persons with disabilities. Before, in my era, you rarely saw a person with a disability, because they were institutionalized or sheltered at home.”
He continued, “Here we are 30 years or more later, and a lot of those students are now employers, making decisions on who works at their place of employment.”
Fifty-six per cent of all persons with disabilities in Canada are employed or actively seeking employment. Things have come a long way, but there’s still plenty of progress to be made. This is why the Workforce Planning Board of Waterloo Wellington Dufferin held its third annual Disabilities Mentoring Day Monday, the only program of its kind in Canada.
The event matches local employers with persons with disabilities from Waterloo Region schools and services, based on corresponding interests between applicants and companies. Twenty-two participants from Waterloo Region were matched with 15 local business.
“For the employer, it gives them an opportunity to see that bringing in a person with a disability is not going to be difficult on their company,” said Charlene Hofbauer, project coordinator for the Workplace Planning Board.
“They’re going to fit right in, and they’re going to see what skills persons with disabilities can bring into the workplace. … The day actually gives the employer an opportunity to live the experience. To actually bring in someone and say, ‘This is our environment, and how do we accommodate not just our employees, but also our customers and clients.’”
There are still some misconceptions, and persons with disabilities seeking jobs continue to face some stigma.
“The misconceptions are that to have someone with a disability come to your workplace is going to cost you a lot of money, and that they’re not going to be an employee who shows up every day,” said Hofbauer. “That’s not the case.”
She explained, “Some do have accommodations, but most accommodations are under $200 or $250. And the misconception of missed days – persons with disabilities tend to be more loyal to their employer. They tend to stay with their employer longer, and they tend to come into work.”
Over its three years, the Disabilities Mentoring Day has been almost as useful in education as employment.
“On the part of employers, we’ve had them come back and say, ‘I’m so excited we did it this year, I can’t wait to do it again next year,’” said Hofbauer.“That positive feedback is just amazing.”
Our understanding of what disability is, and what persons with disabilities can offer, has fundamentally shifted in recent decades, making events like this possible. Given that persons with disabilities contribute $25 billion to Canada’s economy annually, this paradigm shift has been a long time coming.
“There are more employers who are looking at diversity as really encompassing everything,” said Hofbauer. “Sometimes when people talk about diversity, they talk about new Canadians. Now we’re starting to see a move towards diversity coming in all shapes and sizes.”
“In any situation, there are people with preconceived notions,” said Bechard.“But I would say the attitude in general is a lot better, and people are far more aware of the value of persons with a disability as employees.”
With Elmira District Community Living celebrating its 50th anniversary, Bechard reflects on the shift in society since the founding. “I was going through our scrapbooks, and there actually was an article in the newspaper, ‘Association admonishes local employers for lack of commitment.’ That article probably was printed in the ‘80s.”
As for now? “It’s not so much anymore,” said Bechard. “There’s been a tremendous amount of work done in the province around educating employers. Employers have been very good in terms of getting onboard.
“Government has done its part, advocacy groups have done their part, and there have been a lot of media campaigns over the years to promote hiring persons with disabilities. … There still is a lot of work to do, but it’s not all that long ago that we were breaking new ground.”