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Disabilities in the Canadian Workplace
Thursday, Jan 23rd, 2020
Statistics Canada reports that one in every five Canadians aged 15 years or older has a disability. Despite ever-increasing efforts to provide education and other resources, Canadians with disabilities still face illegal, discriminatory behavior in the workplace. With ongoing work to update and expand both provincial and federal accessibility regulations, it is critical that employers are familiar with the best practices for accessibility.
Employers may assume they know who in their workplace is disabled, but the reality is that many disabilities aren’t obvious and don’t require the use of an accessibility aid like a wheelchair. People also sometimes choose to hide their disability due to fear of discrimination, harassment or even termination. Maintaining and enforcing a code of conduct, as well as an accessibility policy, can help reduce employee fears.
Disabilities don’t all present themselves the same way, making it challenging to create a comprehensive and global definition. Any definition an employer uses should be broad and inclusive of physical, mental and emotional disabilities, all of which can affect an employee’s day-to-day life. The World Health Organization suggests the following definition:
‘Disabilities’ is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.
In addition to this and other definitions, Canadian employers can also refer to the Federal Disability Reference Guide for additional direction. This guide provides a definition of disabilities, as well as guidance in the creation of inclusive policies, programs and services.
Canadian Laws and Standards
Federally, the Human Rights Act guarantees equal treatment for people, regardless of race, color, sex, genetic characteristics, disability and many other characteristics.
Under the Act, employees have the right to employment without discrimination. Additionally, in 2010, Canada ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which aims to ensure equal rights and freedoms for people with disabilities. The Canadian federal government also created An Act to Ensure a Barrier-free Canada, commonly known as the Accessible Canada Act. Under this Act, the federal government will create standards to address accessibility issues by 2040.
In addition to the federal standards, several provinces have also created laws prioritizing accessibility. Ontario took the lead with the creation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation, or IASR. Manitoba followed with the Accessibility for Manitobans Act and Nova Scotia created the Nova Scotia Accessibility Act. Regardless of whether an employer’s province provides standards, they can use other standards, like those in Ontario, to inform their creation of company policies and procedures. Current provincial laws focus on:
These areas often have roadblocks for people with disabilities and provincial regulations aim to reduce or remove them entirely.
What Employers Can Do
Employers provide information to their employees in a variety of ways, including on paper or through meetings, emails, announcements and letters. However, the information being shared won’t matter if some employees are unable to comprehend it. Providing information in an accessible format benefits not only those with obvious disabilities, but also those with something less obvious, such as poor eyesight. For example, if using PowerPoint for a presentation, employers should avoid using any on-screen text that employees will be expected to read. Many accessible formats for information can also benefit those who aren’t disabled but may face other challenges, like speaking English as a second language.
Accessibility doesn’t start or end at the door but should be an ongoing effort to be inclusive of all employees and give both potential and current employees the best chance at success. Employers should include their accessibility policy with each job opening and be prepared to provide accommodations to candidates, at no cost. Providing accommodations to all potential employees guarantees you will get the best candidate for the job. Accommodations for job interviews could include adding accessibility to a building or changing the interview location. It could also include providing alternative formats for exams or sign language interpreters.
Like accessibility, accommodation doesn’t end once an employee is hired. Businesses with 50 or more employees must have a written process detailing how individual accommodation plans will be developed. Small organizations with 49 or fewer employees are exempt from maintaining a written process but are still required to provide accommodations. This can mean a flexible work schedule to account for doctor’s appointments or sleep issues, changes to a workspace to accommodate aids like wheelchairs or walkers, or providing tools like headphones, screen magnifiers and ergonomic equipment. Many accommodations are low cost or may even cost the employer nothing. Canadian employers report that 58% of requested accommodations didn’t cost anything to implement and 37% reported a median, one-time cost of $500.
Even as education and awareness regarding persons with disabilities in the Canadian workforce has increased, there is still plenty that can be done. SafetySkills offers a course on Employing Workers with Disabilities in Canada to serve as an introduction to the definition of a disability, relevant Canadian laws and standard workplace best practices. Completion of this course is a strong step in the right direction toward making all Canadian workplaces more accessible.