Unable to accomodate: Disability in the B.C. workplace

Kaia Proctor, Laurie Tritschler, Mat Pereira, Kristy Schiewe, Azzaya Khan

I’m scared, I’m really scared of where I’ll end up, of what will happen to me in terms of jobs.- Hal Bennett, Double lower-leg amputee

Hal Bennett is a diabetic, and a double amputee. He has been through a lot in the last few years including a pancreas transplant, a kidney transplant, and the loss of both legs below the knee. His biggest worry now though, is finding employment.

“I’m scared, I’m really scared of where I’ll end up, of what will happen to me in terms of jobs.”

– Hal Bennett, disabled.

Since losing his legs, Bennett has been unable to find a workplace willing to hire him and accommodate his disability. He’s not the only one.

Many disabled people could be contributing to society through their work, but because they haven’t found a workplace that has accommodated them, they’re forced to live off government disability provided by taxpayers dollars.

According to Statistics Canada, as of 2017 nearly 40% of disabled British Columbians were not working.

Wolfgang Zimmerman, Executive Director of the National Institute of Disability Management and Research, partly a big part of the problem is Canadians are not in the habit of hiring disabled people.

“That’s just the reality of it. No matter which way you want to dress it up, we just don’t.” said Zimmerman.

Zimmerman is disabled himself. He broke his back in a logging accident near his hometown of Port Alberni. It was 1977 and Zimmermann was working for MacMillan Blodel. He said he was “lucky” to be rehired and accommodated after the accident due to the “high level of guilt on the part of the company”. But Zimmermann says the discrimination against many other disabled workers is staggering.

“In Canada, well over 1.2 million people with disabilities live in poverty,” explained Zimmermann, adding, “that’s really because, frankly we don’t hire disabled.” 

Zimmerman believes this lack of willingness to hire, accommodate, or promote disabled people can be classified as discrimination. 

Wolfgang Zimmermann is the President of the Pacific Coast University for Workplace Health Sciences and the Executive Director of the National Institute of Disability Management and Research. (Twitter / PCUWHS)

A 2011 survey by the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities found that 88% of feared a negative reaction from disclosing their disability. 

Professor Michael Prince, a professor of social policy at the University of Victoria said not only are many people who openly identify as disabled being discriminated against, there are many more whose problems would never be shown on any public data because they go to great lengths to hide their disabilities.

“That might mean that they will get passed up for any future promotion opportunities or training opportunities in their workplace. And the ultimate fear of course is that they may get terminated,” explained Prince.

Data from the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal shows many British Columbians feel discriminated against by their employers. 

Complaints to the tribunal over the last ten years show that employment related discrimination complaints filed by disabled British Columbians disproportionately outnumber complaints filed by people alleging discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity/expression. 

The kinds of deep social biases that result in such a level of discrimination mean people with so-called “invisible disabilities” (meaning a disability that is not immediately apparent by looking at a person) often fear revealing their disabilities.

A 2017 survey by Statistics Canada reported among employees with disabilities a third (33%) had not disclosed their disability to their employer.

This fear of facing discrimination and being “unhirable” with a disability ultimately comes down to uneducated employers, said Prince.

“They don’t think they’ve hired anyone before, or they don’t think they’ve got anyone currently on their staff, who has certain health conditions or physical or mental impairment. So, they’re just reluctant or unsure and lack confidence.” he added.

Heather Lamb, a spokesperson for Spinal Cord Injury BC seconded that point, explaining that disabled employees become an asset to a workplace rather than a liability when employers look past their assumptions.  

“I think people see the inability first. They see what the person can’t do rather than the many, many, many more things that the person can do, and our workplace is a prime example of what can be done when the employer has the right attitude.”- Heather Lamb, B.C. Spinal Cord Injury BC spokesperson.

Over half the staff at the B.C. Spinal Injury Clinic including Lamb identify as having a disability, and she says it’s a great example of how the right workplace accommodations and employer attitude can shift an entire workplace dynamic to value as she puts it the unique contributions that we all can bring.

This shift in workplace mentality takes effort and intention. Prince says the key component in bringing about a change in mentality is encouraging business owners who do create an accommodating workplace to spread the word about it.

“There’s a lot of work to be had by employers talking peer to peer, that’s often found to be the best way of having these conversations and beginning to shift workplace cultures.”-Michael Prince, UVIC Professor.

One of the biggest issues currently blocking more disabled people from entering the workforce, is a lack of willingness by employers to give disabled workers the accommodations they need to perform well.

A Statistics Canada report released in September stated 21% of disabled workers between the ages of 25-64 who required workplace accommodations claimed they had NONE of their requested workplace accommodations met.

Accommodations are different for every individual, some examples include:

Altered work schedules

Adjustable office equipment

Accessible parking spaces

Automatic doors

Hal Bennett says even during interviews he struggles with how to present the kind of accommodations he would need on the job. Bennett can manage as many as 5,000 steps per day with the use of his prosthetic legs he worries about how to present himself at job interviews. 

“How do I go in for the interview? Do I go in on the chair and let them know that I can stand but that my chair use is primary and the walking is an added benefit? Or do I do it the other way around going, you know I can walk. But I also have to bring this [wheelchair] with me and this has to be accessible.” 

Bennett said he’s now looking into re-training so he could potentially work in the field of prosthetic making so that the employers would “already be accustomed to dealing with disabilities.”

The idea that most employers are simply not educated on how to accommodate disabilities was echoed by every individual interviewed for this article. 

Zimmerman says until a major cultural shift happens, the Canadian government needs to force a change. 

“It’d be really straightforward there is no science to this, it would simply require a bit of tweaking of the Workers Compensation Act and require an employer obligation on return to work for disabled workers, that’s all it would take.”

Ontario recently edited their Workers Compensation Act to include a return to work program. Zimmermann says at the very least, forcing employers to re-employ and accommodate workers who become disabled during their adult life would be a huge step in the right direction for BC.

“You are much more willing to go out of your way to assist that individual [someone you’ve worked with] as opposed to somebody who was a total stranger and comes off the street and is asking you to change your job to accommodate them.”

Workplace accommodations look different for every job and disability. 

Greg Pyc is the National Operations manager for Neil Squire. He is disabled and uses a wheel-chair to get around. His workplace at Neil Squire is a great example of what accommodation looks like, and his position shows the benefits disabled workers can bring to a company when properly accommodated.

While Pyc acknowledged providing handicap washrooms and automatic doors can be costly, He seconded Lamb’s point that most workplace accommodation is affordable.

General accommodations won’t cost you too much. We don’t try to rip the employer off to make work stations accommodated. The rule of thumb is under $500. General accommodation is inexpensive. – Greg Pyc, National Operations Manager for Neil Squire Society.

500 dollars is enough to cover basic modification of a workspace, such as altered desks and ergonomic chairs. A large portion of accommodations involves altered scheduling and modifying office layouts, at zero cost.

Total inclusion of disabled people into Canada’s general workforce will require a lot of social change and is a long term goal. As Prince put it:

“This is not going to happen quickly. You just have to start doing it, and hang in and persist. Really changing Canadians attitudes in a really major way will take a number of years, and a sustained effort and involving unions professional bodies, employers employees, governments, you name it. So, there will always be those who will take up the challenge early, and the rest of us who will take some time”

For those like Hal Bennett searching for a job now, that time can’t come soon enough.