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Our workplaces don’t work for people with disabilities

Finding a job is difficult — especially without accommodations and accessibility
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Summertime has finally come to an end and a new school term has begun. But before we fully submerge ourselves in piles upon piles of stress, I want to remark upon a frustrating discovery I made over the course of the summer: job hunting as a student with no experience is never easy, but as a person with disabilities, it is far more difficult.

I am hearing-impaired, epileptic, and have poor motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Any job that carries the expectation of quick service, like a customer service job with long lines, will be overwhelming for me and might cause me to have a seizure. While I eventually found a job at the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association during the last half of the summer, I can’t help but be frustrated at how much my options were limited based on my disabilities. 

I’m not the only one experiencing this difficulty. Unemployment is common in the disabled community. According to Statistics Canada, only 49 per cent of disabled people aged 25 and aboveare employed. In contrast, the employment rate is 60.6 per cent among the general population 16 and older. On top of that, graduate students with a disability are less likely to obtain management positions. 

Of course, unemployment may be the result of hiring discrimination, but it can also result from a lack of proper accommodations and accessibility in the workplace. 

Fortunately, the pandemic forced workplaces to introduce remote work. While that didn’t solve everything, it allowed those who have physical disabilities to work from home with ease. No longer did they have to stress over how to get to the location of their workplace and move around its space; instead, they could navigate the familiar environment of their homes. 

Yet, the more that people are getting vaccinated, the more it looks like we will start to return to “normalcy” in the workplace. While that is exciting, it is important that workplaces maintain their accommodations for employees, especially those with disabilities, so that they are not left behind in the transition to normalcy. 

If those with disabilities are to feel welcome at work, workplaces which are inherently ableist in nature need to change.

Myths about accessibility in the workplace

When we think of accommodations and accessibility, we usually think of wheelchair accessibility: ramps, wide hallways, elevators, higher desks — the whole nine yards. But although “accommodations” and “accessibility” seem similar, the two terms have different meanings. 

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. Different disabilities and chronic illnesses require different types of accommodations. Unfortunately, employers do not make all of those accommodations available. 

According to Melanie Scott, Rick Hansen Foundation’s marketing communications writer, there are three main myths that make work difficult to secure for people with disabilities. 

The first of those myths is that people with disabilities are lazy and can’t work efficiently. If you enter the phrase “laziness in the workplace” into your search bar, you will likely find a whole slew of articles and blog posts with titles like “5 Kinds of Lazy Employees and How to Handle Them” and “I’ve Got a Lazy Employee, What Do I Do?” The people who post these entries define a lazy employee as someone who arrives late, pretends to be a victim to get out of a situation, procrastinates, or is overall a troublemaker. 

Through my own research, I have discovered a binary distinction between people’s views of laziness and productivity. In my view, every business owner wants their employees to be productive because they believe that when everyone is putting in the work, they get to maximize profits. According to a study about productivity in the workplace, “An important indicator of workplace performance is productivity defined as the amount of output produced for inputs used.” 

Here, input refers to the resources needed to accomplish a task — such as building a car, for example — and includes time, money, and effort. On the other hand, output refers to accomplished tasks — the car or product itself. The fewer resources you use to achieve a greater output, the higher your profit.

People with disabilities may take more time to complete tasks, may need more breaks than other employees, and might potentially need to leave work early due to chronic issues. However, while I understand that business owners value productivity, considering those with disabilities ‘lazy’ for requiring more resources to complete tasks discounts the fact that they must work twice as hard in order to put out the same output. It also overlooks their need for accommodations or accessibility services. 

Overall, this myth is harmful and overall disrespectful to the disabled community. Despite their disabilities, these persons are talented, skilled, and are willing to do the work. Not hiring a person because they are disabled is an unfair assumption of their capabilities. 

Secondly, people may believe that providing accommodations is expensive — but that’s not the case. According to a 1,029 participant survey conducted by the Job Accommodation Network, 56 per cent of employers said they were able to provide accommodations at no cost, 39 per cent experienced a one-time cost of $500 on average, and only 4 per cent reported that providing accommodations required annual costs. Thus, it is blatant ableism and discrimination to turn a person with disability away because of the potential expenses their accommodations might incur.

Third, people may assume that having a disability means receiving special treatment. The term ‘special treatment’ implies that, without accommodations, everyone has equal opportunities to succeed, and that allowing accommodations for disabled workers separates a few workers from the rest and gives them unnecessary benefits. It’s like getting a VIP ticket to a movie or concert. 

However, a person’s disability poses barriers that shape every aspect of their lives, and receiving accommodations and having systems of accessibility in place are necessary for them to experience life to the fullest. For instance, I am hard of hearing; thus, if I am meeting someone or attending class, I require the main speaker to wear an FM microphone. When that’s not possible, the person speaking can also face me and remove their mask at a safe distance, so I can lip read to understand them. When these accommodations are granted, I am given the chance to understand the professor just as well as the rest of the class, essentially leveling the playing field. This is not granting me special treatment.

These three myths are harmful because they may reduce the confidence of any potential employee with a disability when they’re applying for a job. 

Physical barriers

Even if these myths were somehow eliminated from society’s psyche, the physical and sensory barriers in workplaces also require accommodations and accessibility services. 

People with disabilities may also experience many physical barriers when navigating their workplaces. 

One type of physical barrier deals with entering and exiting buildings. Those who are unable to walk distances require parking space close to the main entrance of the building, and its absence can be problematic for them. 

In that same vein, people who use wheelchairs have to take the elevator to get around a building. However, when there is an emergency, such as a fire, elevators cannot be used. Therefore, the problem for them becomes how to get out safely and quickly. 

Fortunately, Emergency Management Ontario (EMO) has provided a detailed document that provides useful suggestions to get wheelchair users out safely and quickly in the event of an emergency. For instance, it is important that businesses practice moving special needs equipment while practicing their emergency plan. Also, if businesses have employees who use wheelchairs, EMO suggests that they have an emergency evacuation chair near the stairwell for quick evacuation. 

Legally, employers should make these considerations for disabled employees. The Canada Occupational Health and Safety Regulations indicate that emergency plans should be developed with everyone in mind, including workers with disabilities. 

Despite the fact that this legislation exists, it is important to recognize that, while the Ontarians with Disabilities Act sought to improve opportunities for people with disabilities in 2001, mandatory accessibility standards weren’t established until 2005. These legal protections are fairly recent, and Ontario also passed the Multi-Year Accessibility Plan in 2018, but we still have a long way to go before workplaces in the province are fully accessible. 

The second major type of physical barriers is related to the size of the business’ location. That can include the size of the entrances, hallways, and personal work spaces. 

For instance, when working at a mall food court, the cooking and counter space is far too narrow for people who need to use a wheelchair or a walker to get around the counter and serve others. This small space forces employees to stand for hours at a time, which is not good for those who experience exhaustion and pain when they stand for long periods of time. 

In workplace bathrooms, some of the most ordinary objects that we use every day are not accessible for everyone. For instance, some people, like those with dwarfism or wheelchairs, may struggle to reach sinks that are too tall.  

Sensory barriers

Due to the ongoing pandemic, it has become the standard in any workplace that everyone wears masks and observes social distance protocols for safety measures. However, this policy creates barriers for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, as masks can muffle voices, as well as hide lip movements and facial expressions.

In my experience, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disapproves of the use of face shields for everyday use, the use of face shields in place of masks can drastically improve these issues. Clear masks are even better. Speech-language and Audiology Canada released a statement encouraging the use of clear masks to promote COVID-19 protection and accommodations alike.

People who are blind or visually impaired struggle to see and require accommodations that can help them navigate the building and read important signs. In those cases, sensory barriers may include a lack of Braille on signs, big fonts, or easily visible ‘wet floor’ signs. 

I mention wet floor signs in particular because some people who have poor vision struggle to see them. In a video from Accessible Media, Alex Smyth, who is visually impaired, points out that these signs are “too short to spot easily.” As a result, he often knocks them over.

He also remarks on the colour of wet floor signs — he claims that neon yellow tends to blend into the background, and he suggests that brighter colors, like red, would be easier to spot. 

While knocking these signs down may be an annoyance for Alex, his difficulty seeing the signs also means that he would not be able to notice that he is about to walk on a wet floor and may slip and harm himself. Despite the fact that they are supposed to be a symbol of safety, the poor design of wet floor signs means that they become a hazard for those who are visually impaired or blind. 

Potential systems of accessibility 

There are so many ways employers can make their businesses more accessible for potential employees. I’m hard of hearing, and some of the systems of accessibility I’m familiar with include purchasing clear masks or face visors, ensuring videos have closed-captioning, and hiring sign language interpreters or training employees in sign language. 

Employers can also write memos about announcement contents for the deaf and hearing-impaired, provide visual emergency notifications, supply headsets with built-in microphone for quality sound, and arrange for audio description or screen readers. 

In order to accommodate those with physical disabilities, workplaces should create accessible emergency evacuation plans, floor plans and interior design for all. They should allow for remote work where possible, and grant extended time for the completion of tasks. 

I believe that the more we accept people with disabilities into the workplace, the more society will realize that people with disabilities are productive, efficient, and loyal employees who are creative in coming up with solutions in the face of a crisis. 

In my personal experience, most college students who have disabilities are able to successfully navigate their academics. Whatever challenges they have faced have shaped them into overcomers, making them the examples of true grit that are needed in the workforce. Who wouldn’t want an employee who exhibits these traits? 

So, accessible and accommodating work environments will motivate employees with disabilities and ultimately affect businesses’ bottom line for the better. In addition, proper accommodations can restore a lost sense of dignity and independence to individuals with disabilities, especially those who have spent the majority of their lives dependent on loved ones or hired helpers to function.

People with disabilities still need to pay their bills and tuition, as well as afford the basic services they need to live. We can’t do that if workplaces remain inaccessible to us.

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