Accessibility & Accommodations
Blogpost by Jienan Chen
October 14, 2022
What do employers need to know about accessibility and accommodations in Canada? How can you become an equal opportunity employer? In honour of Disability Employment Awareness Month, this month's blog post features research into accessibility best practices and resources for employers trying to improve their workplaces for all their employees.
All Canadians have the right to take part fully in society.
Advancing accessibility is about creating barrier-free communities, workplaces, and services for all Canadians. This is especially important to the more than 6 million Canadians, aged 15 and over, who have a disability.
“Towards an Accessible Canada.” Government of Canada
In 2019, the Accessible Canada Act was put in place, with the goal of making Canada barrier-free by 2040. This is a very ambitious plan. As employment specialists, we see that many workplaces have a long way to go in increasing accessibility to create long-lasting change toward inclusive work cultures. For it to be successful, I think that it is important for us to understand what is required by law for accessibility in the workplace. Part of this is, of course, understanding what can employees with disabilities ask for? Then, what should employers be expected to provide for them?
To this point, some employers appear to consider that this is all very much a hassle which can be cut out of their lives by simply not hiring any workers with disabilities. This conclusion is borne out by the statistics: according to Statistics Canada, workers with disability have consistently significantly lower employment rates in Canada than comparable (in education/training) workers without disability. Statistics Canada assesses the employment rates as they correspond to self-reported levels of mild, moderate, severe or very severe barriers. Consistently, the employment picture for jobseekers with disability gets less and less rosy depending on the perceived level of disability. And, while according to Canadian Equality Consulting, refusing to hire individuals with disability counts as discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act, it is easy for employers to have plausible deniability to that accusation. To avoid the potential for litigation, they can choose to be vague or generic in their reasons for not hiring a candidate in order to limit evidence of discriminatory hiring practices.
And sadly, hiring managers who choose to not hire workers with disabilities, are effectively limiting the diversity of their talent pool—thus limiting the amount of innovative/creative thinking and problem solving that they could leverage on. The Government of Canada indicates additional benefits of inclusive workplaces, such as they are twice as likely to meet or surpass financial goals, reduce turnover, and improve company morale. Despite these (and more) benefits, why do Canadians with disability have such a tough time finding employment?
Individuals with disabilities face a constant barrage of generalizations, assumptions and myths regarding their abilities in the workplace, despite plenty of research and statistics refuting them. As Catherine Dumé, a writer (with lived experience jobseeking as an individual with a disability) points out, she encounters three main myths: That people with disability are less productive, that accommodations are prohibitively expensive and that employees with disabilities are looking for “special treatment”. While it is true that some disabilities may affect how individuals complete their worktasks, considering these employees as less productive “overlooks their need for accommodations or accessibility services. ”Simply put, by providing (often simple and readily accessible) accommodations and improving general accessibility, employers can provide a level playing field for all their employees to equally thrive and succeed in the workplace, while reaping the benefits of expanding their potential workpool into untapped, often highly skilled talent.
Now, we must understand the definition of “accessibility.” As it turns out, installations such as wheelchair ramps, elevators, etc. are considered accommodations, whereas inclusive design of spaces is considered accessibility. Dumé says that “accessibility refers to systems that are designed to be used by everyone, while accommodations are systems designed to be used by a few specific people.” With this in mind, what should organizations strive to do to create an inclusive workplace? Unlimited Play states that striving for universal accessibility should be the primary goal.
They make the following arguments as to why, in general, accessibility is preferable to accommodations:
- “Accommodation is reactive. Accessibility is proactive.” As the University of Iowa specifies, “accommodations are patches or fixes, applied retroactively to overcome barriers in the environment or system.” For instance, a wheelchair lift was only installed at The Royal Society (in London) at the request of Stephen Hawking in 1975. Prior to that time, the self described fellowship of the "world's most eminent scientists" effectively excluded one of the most famous minds of the 20th century due to a lack of forethought in their inclusion practices.
- “Accommodation requires a person with a disability to ‘out’ themselves when they should not have to.” Like Stephen Hawking, many disabled people in an “inaccessible facility” must seek help. Inarguably, having to always determine who is authorized to provide accommodation, and then constantly advocate for one’s needs can be daunting, and can also make a worker feel “othered” and singled out.
- “Accommodations are helpful for people who need them, but accessibility benefits everyone.” At a workplace evaluation for a visually impaired client, OSP staff made a recommendation to ensure that all pathways were cleared of the piles of boxes that were encroaching into walk-spaces. While this was a specific (and cost-free) recommendation for a single individual, it had the benefit of improving accessibility and productivity for ALL employees, who were no longer forced to navigate around a maze of boxes, while also proactively providing better access for future visitors with mobility device, wheelchairs or other issues with navigation.
- “Accommodations are required. Accessibility compliance is gaining digital momentum”—which refers to the fact that accessibility is no longer a physical consideration, it is growing in influence in the digital world. Considering the ubiquity of digital processes in most workplaces, this cannot be underplayed as a workplace accessibility issue. Unlimited Play gives the example of a Californian Domino’s Pizza being sued when someone could not place an order using screen-reading software online or through their app.
- “While accommodations are measured, accessibility comes from the heart.” The idea is that “rather than asking how people with different abilities can better participate in a world that was not designed for them, accessibility asks: How can we design a world with fewer barriers?”
That said, while improving accessibility does benefit everybody, the challenges faced by employees on the individual level will sometimes require the employer to provide additional individual accommodations to craft a truly inclusive workplace for all their employees. This prospect may feel both daunting and expensive to contemplate, however, the accommodations needed are often simple and straightforward solutions that simply require small adjustments to current workplace practices, and many of these come at little to no cost to the employers. A 2020 Job Accommodation Network study with 1029 employer participants who report providing accommodations within their workplaces, concluded that 56% of employers spent nothing on the accommodations they provided to employees. Meanwhile, 39% paid on average $500 one-time cost to do so. Only 4% of employers paid an annual fee for this purpose.
In Canada, businesses can apply for grants to make their offices accessible, like the Enabling Accessibility Fund offered by the Federal Government. There are three separate components to this grant that can be applied for. “The small projects component”—with projects such as building ramps and accessible washrooms—should be especially enticing to employers. The Job Accommodation Network study also found that with these accommodations put in place, there were both direct and indirect benefits, such as the retainment of valued employees and increase in the company’s morale and safety. Therefore, the benefits seem to outweigh potential costs (if any).
The duty to accommodate acts within Canadian law’s prohibition of discrimination based on disabilities. This duty falls on employers and is described by the Public Service Alliance of Canada as “[making] sure that their workplaces are inclusive and allow all workers to participate fully.” To reach this goal, a partnership needs to form between employers and employees who require accommodation. Though it is the employers’ duty to evaluate their workplace’s design and management, employees should be able to ask for accommodations to be made for them without hesitation. The Canadian Civil Liberties Associations explains that for employers to knock down any barriers and make the workplace inclusive, employees that require accommodations should provide any relevant information to help address their needs most effectively. Then, “the employee must make reasonable efforts to work within the employer’s accommodation.” However, to disclose or not is solely the choice of someone with a disability. Many feel reluctant to disclose for many reasons, such as fear of appearing less capable, concern that their disclosure will result in discrimination, or concern that the accommodations will cause a backlash among fellow employees who may feel that they indicate preferential treatment. The Discover Ability Network advises:
Disclosure is [one’s] choice, and there is no right or wrong. Disclosing can be a bit of an art form. It can be affected by whether [one has] a visible or invisible disability, how [one feels] about [one’s] disability and sharing personal information, what type of disability [one has], and on whether it might open up more opportunities to [oneself] (for instance, if [one applies] through a diversity recruitment program).
[One does] have to disclose if [one’s] disability will affect the health and safety of [oneself] or the people who [one works with].
Employers that include information about diverse hiring practices, inclusive recruiting or explicitly invite job seekers with a disability to apply make it easier to consider disclosing. If an accommodation will improve [one’s] performance in an interview or testing, it is probably a good idea to consider asking for what [one needs] in order to perform [one’s] best (and get a job offer).
Across Canada, there are many organizations that advocate for inclusivity and accessibility. For instance, on the national level, there is the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. In Alberta, there is the government’s Office of the Advocate for Persons with Disabilities, as well as organizations such as Voice of Albertans with Disabilities and Disability Action Hall. In Mary Long’s description of Disability Action Hall, they write that “everyone is welcome to attend their weekly meetings, where members hold discussions on change-making initiatives, what it’s like to live with a disability, and current issues.” This really is the attitude which should be taken to the issue of accessibility in Canada: It cannot be done without the active participation of the individuals to whom it most affects. Too often, accommodation and accessibility decisions are made solely based on the best guesses of organizational leaders, which leaves the most important part of the equation out: the individuals who must live with these decisions.
To “[create] barrier-free communities, workplaces, and services for all Canadians” by 2040, I know that we would like the Government and employers to make it happen. But to this end, there are things that everyone can do too. The Rick Hanson Foundation provides a list of actions that business owners, community members, and educators can take.
To learn more about the topics discussed in this blogpost, consider checking the following resources: