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For employers, it pays to support disabilities

John Huynh was eager and talented. And, with a degree in economics from York University in Toronto, he seemed a prime candidate for a career in finance.

But while the employers he approached were happy to interview him, "afterwards, I didn't hear a response, or they'd say I wasn't the candidate they were looking for," he says.

The reason? He has a physical disability that limits his mobility and the strength in his arms. While he can walk without assistance, he needs an office with features such as a powered door opener, an adaptable chair and ergonomic office equipment. He believes those turned into deal breakers in his job hunt.

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"It's frustrating," Mr. Huynh says. "It's illegal for employers to say they can't offer someone a job because they are disabled, so, rather than say that, they will say 'sorry, you don't have enough experience,' " Mr. Huynh says. "That means you can't prove what you can do because you can't get a foot in the door."

That's been the dilemma facing Canadians with disabilities for years -- but experts as well as employers say there is a growing recognition of the need to accommodate disabled workers and use their skills.

Kaye Leslie, manager of work force diversity for Bank of Nova Scotia in Toronto, says she is hopeful the tide has finally turned for recognition of ability rather than disability.

"This is not saying 'please give these people a job,' it is about 'look at the calibre of people we have here.' We can't afford any longer to keep ignoring this pool of talented labour," Ms. Leslie told a conference on diversity sponsored by the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business last week in Toronto.

And today, career experts from across the country are meeting in Toronto to hammer out a set of recommendations for employers on using the skills of people with disabilities as part of a consultation sponsored by the Conference Board of Canada.

The reasons are practical, says Ms. Leslie, who has a vision disability. An aging work force nearing retirement means employers are having to compete for talent as never before, she explains. Meanwhile, technologies can more easily accommodate the needs of disabled workers, giving them access to education and greater ability to do their work.

And employers are looking at an enormous pool of potential talent that has been underfished in the past, she notes.

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According to the Participation and Activity Limitation Survey by Statistics Canada in 2002, the percentage of Canadians who identified themselves as having disabilities ranged from 8.4 per cent in Quebec to 17.1 per cent in Nova Scotia.

This wide variation is mostly due to the fact that many people don't want to claim disabilities because of the stigma that it might disqualify them for work, Ms. Leslie said.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is between 60 per cent and 80 per cent, regardless of education and experience, she says.

"There are still a lot of myths. A lot of people think being disabled means people in wheelchairs," Don Peuramaki, executive producer for Fireweed Media in Toronto, told the Ivey conference. But disabilities range from sight, speech and hearing deficits to learning disabilities, epilepsy and mental health issues.

However, there are more support systems and equipment available to help people overcome limitations they may face, so disabilities represent much less of a barrier to active and meaningful work than they once did, Mr. Peuramaki said.

The biggest roadblock now is workplace attitudes that have not changed with the times, he says.He encourages employers to look at banks, which have been at the forefront of actively recruiting people with disabilities.

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One such program gave Mr. Huynh his big break.

He heard from York University's career centre that Bank of Montreal was looking for someone to help develop a recruitment strategy for people with disabilities. He was hired in 2001 as an intern through the bank's Ability Edge program. The program pays a stipend for up to six months to help people with disabilities make the transition into full-time work.

"That was what I needed to show the work I was capable of doing. Since then, my progress has been based on the work I've done and my disabilities were never, ever a factor," he says.

Over the next six years, Mr. Huynh earned a series of promotions, through the direct banking division to personal banking and then to risk management. Now, at 29, he is an associate manager in marketing.

The program has been expanding because it has added significant talent to the bank, says Marcel Ekelschot, vice-president of direct banking at BMO.

It's not just disabled employees who have benefited from the program. Many of the bank's aging employees are developing conditions that require technological assistance or access accommodations, he adds.

"Our first and foremost objective is talent and excellence in performance. We never lower the bar. We just make sure it is accessible to everyone," Mr. Ekelschot says.

BMO has an adaptive technology team that takes equipment such as phones, computers and chairs made by external suppliers and customizes them to individual needs of employees. Adjustments include magnifying text on computer screens for visually impaired users and a software program called Jaws, which automates keyboard functions and links to a speech synthesizer.

There is also ongoing training programs throughout the bank, Mr. Ekelschot says. These lunch-and-learn sessions, during which experts and those with disabilities conduct discussions, are available to employees on a quarterly basis. The company will also pay for sign-language courses.

These efforts have paid off, Mr. Ekelschot says. His division employs people with severe vision impairments who are just as productive as those who are fully sighted, he says.

Scotiabank has also added similar initiatives to its accommodation program as part of the bank's diversity program, Ms. Leslie says. Among the things she's learned that make a program work are:

It has to be ongoing. The top leaders must be committed to making it part of the corporate environment, Ms. Leslie says.

It is important to involve employees at all levels of the operation in the discussions.

A budget for accommodations such as access ramps and assistance technology needs to be set up separately from departmental operating budgets to prevent funding conflicts, Ms. Leslie says. "So you don't have managers saying we would like to accommodate you, but we need a new copier."

And "it's not enough to provide accommodation. You have to continually go back and make sure it is still working," Ms. Leslie says. Scotiabank runs regular satisfaction surveys of employees and has found that the group least satisfied with opportunities and workplace issues are people with disabilities.

When these results are followed up, it's often found that people with disabilities don't speak up or ask for help if something isn't working for them, she said. "People are afraid of being seen as a burden and, if the software doesn't work and they complain, they are afraid they will be let go."

But she is optimistic that attitudes will change when "people see that it's more than a fluffy, nice thing to do to hire people with disabilities," Ms. Leslie says. "People will take it to heart when they realize you can have high productivity from the disabled."

Making the effort will more than pay for itself, she adds.

"The more we learn about how to accommodate and support the handicapped, the better for everyone."

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Tapping into talent

The payback for accommodating disabled people in the workplace is a rich source of talented employees, Nayla Farah, director of the Toronto-based Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work's Job Accommodation Service, said at a conference in Toronto last week.

Here are the council's recommendations:

Create a clear, written policy on the organization's commitment to accommodating people with disabilities, and review progress on achieving it regularly.

Identify the roles and responsibilities of all managers and outline the benefits the whole organization will achieve.

Find champions. The program needs support from the very top levels of management .who can ensure it is implemented in all areas.

Track what other employers are doing and what you can learn from their experiences. The CCRW has done 2,200 evaluations of workplaces over the past six years and can provide advice on what lessons other employers have learned.

Separate funding from operating budgets, so it doesn't create conflicts over department priorities.

Understand it's case by case. "Accommodations are very individualized. No two people even if they have the same disability are going to need the same accommodation and the needs vary from job to job," Ms. Farah says.

Bring in experts. You may need people with related expertise to advise on how to handle specific cases. Organizations on disability and unions have access to a wide range of specialists.

Get everyone behind the policy. It's not just a "sensitivity session" for the managers, Ms. Farah says. Market it to employees through ongoing workshops and meetings.

Build flexibility in scheduling and communicate. It's important to get a project done by deadline, but allow people to choose the hours and ways they need to complete the work.

Build a forum for improvement. Go over results and get feedback from disabled employees and co-workers on how to improve the process.

Wallace Immen

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More

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