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CEO and founder of Return on Disability.

Canadian business has struggled since 1989 to hire people with disabilities in any material numbers. This is not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon. The experience has been repeated globally by millions of companies.

This struggle is rooted in knee-jerk reactions to regulation and can be avoided by doing what business does best: understanding and serving a new market – a big new market.

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Over the past 18 months, I've spent significant time studying the dislocation between the increasing demand for equality and the need for businesses to grow. Conferences and conversations around the world confirmed for me that companies are doing it wrong. Very few have the objectives, strategies or execution plans to do what their customers, investors and regulators are expecting: to meet or exceed the demands of consumers and talent in non-traditional markets.

While a non-traditional customer and labour pool can mean many things, I want to focus on the second-largest non-traditional market in Canada – and globally: people with disabilities.

Stats show that the 18.7 per cent of the population that self-declares as a person with a disability (PWD) makes an average annual income of 91 per cent compared with those living without a disability. Simple math means 6.2 million Canadians with a disability control $55.4-billion in annual disposable income. When their friends and family are added to the market, disability touches 53 per cent of consumers controlling more than $366.5-billion. Globally, this market opportunity is more than $10-trillion.

This year, the Ontario government required organizations and businesses with more than one employee to make their employment practices accessible to job applicants and staff with disabilities through the Accessible Employment Standard. This new requirement was followed by the launch of Access Talent: Ontario's Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities, which challenges every Ontario employer with 20 or more employees to hire at least one person with a disability.

As an investor, I am calling on companies to maximize their growth by delighting customers with disabilities and hiring PWD to reflect 18.7 per cent of their work force. We can do this by better understanding this non-traditional market, and the skills and experiences people with disabilities bring that drive profitable growth. Here are five basic building blocks for companies to consider:

1. Talk to your customer

The easiest way to discover what a customer wants is to simply ask them. The disability space currently relies on "experts" who generally do not understand consumers. There is no substitute for an expression of demand that comes directly from a customer. Businesses focus on these demands all the time, but rarely in the disability space. Seeing as people with disabilities and their families represent 53 per cent of our consumer base, businesses must start asking the right questions to uncover ways to attract this valuable sector.

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2. Be attractive, not merely inclusive

An accessible front door is inclusive. A great experience at a great price is attractive. Which one are you highlighting? A savvy marketer would never lead with, "Come on in and see our sparkling new front door!" They would get laughed out of business – and rightly so. Yet, when we lead with access, that's exactly what we're doing. Focus less on the minimums and more on those things that drive great experiences for your customers – like anyone else, those connected to disability need to be wooed if you expect to earn their business and maximize net revenue.

3. Hire and engage talent for productivity and innovation

The war for talent is back. Labour markets are tight and recruiters are busy again. PWD are a source of quality talent that can meet the new demand we see globally. To do this effectively, new action is required. Access Talent offers a practical road map for hiring PWD and moving our economy closer to full capacity. Ultimately, companies must respond to business needs such as a tight labour supply and changing consumer/investor demand. The two ways to attract quality talent with disabilities include:

  • Actively recruit where you have had success, using an attractive disability message.
     
  • Highlight career and company success, which is appealing to all potential employees including those with disabilities.

4. Define success and be accountable

A race with no finish line has no winners. Specific goals in disability that can be directly or indirectly measured in value are needed. The most common measurements of value are revenue and cost. Serving 53 per cent of consumers can easily be measured in terms of revenue growth. Tapping talented PWD lowers costs and raises productivity – in addition to providing a unique view of problem-solving that drives innovation. The finish line is simple – increase revenue growth by 20 per cent and ensure that PWD reflect 18.7 per cent of the work force. Management must hold teams accountable to cross that finish line.

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5. Make continuous improvement

A little truth telling: getting this right takes iteration of a process rooted in clear strategy and owned by senior leaders. One-off campaigns fail and by definition are not adjusted. Success looks like it does in any other business action: desired results should be clearly defined, followed by executing a plan and have evaluated results that are adjusted for continual improvement. Institutions do this every day and the process can easily be applied to attracting the disability market. One-off campaigns must be replaced with an ongoing process that attracts people with disabilities in ways that add value.

Ignoring a pool of 6.2 million potential employees and $55.4-billion in disposable income is not smart business in any industry. Disability represents almost 20 per cent of the Canadian market and much of its economic power is untapped. Get there first.

Editor's note: October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

Video: Talking Management: The difference between strategy and leadership (Special to Globe and Mail Update)
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