How Accessible is Your Workplace…Really?
By Mark Gruenheid
Most of us are comfortable with the concept of an “accessible workplace”. Through the BC Centre for Ability, we seek to expand the definition of accessibility.
Taking AIM at Inclusion
The Abilities in Mind (AIM) program of the BC Centre for Ability currently works with prominent companies including CTV Bellmedia, TD Canada Trust, Shangri-La Hotels, London Drugs, Vancity and Spectra Energy in a consultative role, shifting corporate culture to one of acceptance and understanding of disability.
Great strides have been taken toward the physical inclusion of persons with disabilities, particularly those with mobility challenges who are wheelchair users in the work environment. New buildings are subject to stringent accessibility requirements and older, existing locations are being retro-fitted and renovated to ensure equal access for all. This is where most of the current focus on accessibility is placed.
Other areas of accessibility are yet to be fully developed. The idea of accessible job applications, interviews and job descriptions should be the next logical step in the evolution of accessibility. As an employment specialist who assists persons with disabilities to access work opportunities, I have seen through the eyes of the applicant and witnessed some startling things.
Overlooked Aspects of Accessibility
An IT specialist with quadriplegia was asked in a job interview about her typing speed. She explained that although she does not have full use of her hands she has an accommodation for this – a pair of wrist clips that enable her to type 25 words per minute. The job called for a minimum of 60 and she was not considered to be a qualified candidate. Unfortunately the interviewer did not take into account her aptitude for learning, experience with software and equally important, her ability to adapt to situations. Thankfully, another employer did and she is now working in the field again.
In another situation, an applicant to an administrative position in the insurance industry was asked to answer a series of questions requiring paragraph-length answers. This individual is blind and therefore could not read the questions on the test paper. The spur of the moment solution was to have someone read the questions to her, but it put the applicant at a disadvantage—having to remember details of the question, and respond in a way that was not comfortable to her.
I can recall numerous instances of individuals with sensory challenges involving sight and hearing who have been unable to apply for postings online as websites have not included the necessary adaptations. Sometimes this can be as simple as a font boosting option. The good news is that many organizations are taking note of this and improving their online accessibility.
Trading Tradition For Talent
One hurdle we have not yet come to terms with is the traditional face-to-face job interview. This can be a difficult aspect of the job hunt for individuals owing to a disability. In typical hiring practice, the determination of job fit hinges greatly on one’s ability to “perform” in an interview situation.
To individuals with speech, sight and hearing challenges, as well as those with heightened anxiety or cognitive processing challenges, the traditional interview presents all too often as a “no-win” situation. Some employers offer interpretation services or extra time to answer questions which are good steps. Unfortunately, the charismatic candidate who can think on the spot will often get the job even though the position may not require these traits specifically.
Mindsets Need Moving
All of these challenging situations point to one unfortunate conclusion: disability is not well accounted for in many workplaces. I still meet with employers who claim that “nobody with a disability works here”. This is most often said without malice and is not intended to indicate that persons with disabilities could not work there. Instead it is a reflection of the misunderstanding of disability and the continuation of the stereotype that persons with disabilities are a small minority group who traditionally don’t work and need charity. Needless to say comments like these do not promote existing employees to disclose a disability they may have.
At a recent conference I had a short conversation with an attendee who asked me why someone with a disability would want to work. I was surprised by this and went on to explain that such a person would likely want to work for the same reasons anyone else would: self-sufficiency, satisfaction, monetary gain, etc. Her response to me was surprising: “I thought the government took care of these people”.
A Disabling Sense of Definition
Such a conversation shows me that we still have some distance to travel before disability in the workplace is fully understood. “Disability” is a catch-all “category” that we have created. Disability per se is on a large spectrum involving many conditions and situations. And, each individual with a disability is just that, an individual. One person’s experience will not necessarily resemble another’s even though they may have the same “disability”.
What is required is an understanding that disability exists in society and that those with disabilities generally have the same desires as those without. This can include working competitively. The solution is for organizations to accept disability and build internal and external structures that not only provide accessible options for persons with disabilities, but also embrace the contribution of persons with disabilities and view this group as an integral, contributing factor to the workplace.
Individual and Societal Challenges
The social model of disability states that the “person” is not disabled. It is the restrictions that society place on the individual that cause them not to function. Therefore society is disabled if it cannot fully incorporate a person with a disability into the activities of daily living. In other words, society must change to allow persons with disabilities to function more effectively.
We are all familiar with conventional devices that allow each of us to function more effectively: eyeglasses, traffic lights, curb cuts, even computers. We take these for granted. We need to continue working on making necessary improvements for persons with disabilities to develop a truly “accessible workplace”. In turn, attitudes towards persons with disabilities in the workplace will shift and this concept will become second nature to employers.
The AIM program also hosts regular awareness events and an annual conference focused on best practices in the attraction, employment and retention of persons with disabilities. The next conference called “Embracing Ability: Making it Happen” will take place on March 5 and 6, 2014 at the Marriott Pinnacle Hotel in downtown Vancouver and features local, national and international perspectives on the issue.
Mark Guenheid is the manager of Abilities in Mind (AIM) at the BC Centre for Ability.
(PeopleTalk Fall 2013)