The Opportunity Gap
Only when we recognize that people with disabilities contribute will we bridge the gap.

By Cameron Graham, PhD, Chair: Canadian Abilities Foundation

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In my role as a professor at the Schulich School of Business, I see the next generation of business leaders on a daily basis. Our modern, accessible building teems with energetic students. However, I notice two population segments are largely missing from our classrooms. One is Canadian Aboriginals. The other is people with disabilities.
These two groups contain some of the brightest and most talented young people you will ever meet. Yet both groups face structural barriers to participation in education and employment.

For students with disabilities, some barriers can be hard to see. After all, schools and employers are legally obligated to make themselves accessible. Prominent wheelchair ramps and the ubiquitous blue and white wheelchair logos suggest that barriers are a thing of the past. Yet pernicious barriers remain, starting with the educational opportunities available to people with disabilities. Anyone who has waited for accessible transit knows you do not control when you will arrive at your destination. Getting to an early class may therefore be impossible, restricting your choice of classes and instructors. And moving from one classroom to another in the standard 10 minute break, which most other students find relaxing and sociable, may be stressful and draining.

My school happily accommodates different learning requirements. For instance, if you require alternative examination conditions, you can easily make arrangements. However, the accommodation usually means sitting your exam segregated from your peers. You miss the bonding experience of surviving an exam together. This makes it hard for you to feel you really belong.
What about the simple choice of where to sit in a classroom? If you have low vision or hearing loss, you may have to sit in the front row. This, I can tell you, is a social disaster for students who don’t want to be there. The sweet spot for most students is about two-thirds of the way back, where their friends congregate and they have more control over their participation in class. This also affects learning experiences when the class breaks into small groups.

In the workplace, similar barriers can come into play. Getting to and from work remains a considerable challenge. The built environment is becoming more accessible, but only if your employer occupies a modern building; if you want to work for that trendy design firm in a heritage building, you may literally not be able to get in the door. Not all the barriers to employment are physical, mind you. If the boss thinks hiring you is a risk, or if your co-workers resent the accommodations you require to excel, you will face persistent social barriers at work.

Canadian society has tried to address the barriers to employment faced by people with disabilities. Legislation such as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and proposed similar laws in Manitoba compel organizations to accommodate employees with disabilities. These efforts have had some positive results. However, they have also produced a compliance mentality, an attitude that “if we meet legislative requirements, we’re done.”

In this issue of Abilities, we look at disability in the world of business. We take the position that mere compliance is not enough. Employers have to move far beyond the bare minimum if they want to be truly inclusive. They have to understand the costs that barriers impose on employees with disabilities. Just as importantly, they have to understand the costs—the lost productivity and the missed opportunities for innovation—that employers are bearing by excluding people with disabilities.

Simply put, businesses that really “get” disability succeed. To make it possible for their employees with disabilities to contribute fully to the organization, they have to think through everything they do, from hiring to retirement, from the C-suite to the furnace room. When they get better at disability, they get better at business. The thinking such businesses adopt for their employment policies begins to change how they design products and services for their customers.

Radical rethinking like this should be easy to find: just hire people with disabilities and get them to redesign your products and services. It would be naïve, however, to suggest that hiring people with disabilities is straightforward. Accommodations and adjustments do have to be made. Furthermore, because of persistent barriers, skilled workers and managers with disabilities can be hard to find. Human resource managers and executive search firms don’t always have the the necessary skills and contacts.
We know it takes real commitment to succeed if you are an employee with a disability. We need to recognize that it also takes real commitment to succeed as their employer. However, the benefits of inclusion will not only accrue to those with disabilities, they will be enjoyed by businesses smart enough to figure out how to include everybody. For only when we recognize that people with disabilities contribute something to our workforce that we are otherwise missing, will we bridge the opportunity gap.