Story by Christy Weis
Every October, Disability Employment Awareness Month (DEAM) is recognized in growing numbers throughout the world. This year, the Government of Alberta issued a formal Provincial Proclamation to recognize the month as a way to acknowledge the many ways people with disabilities contribute to the workforce, and to promote employment inclusion for persons with disabilities.
As part of DEAM, Alberta Health Services (AHS) held employee awareness workshops in Edmonton and Calgary about living with a disability and disabilities in the workplace. This encompasses both physical disabilities and the less visible disabilities like cognitive or learning disabilities, health conditions, or mental illness. Much of the presentation was dedicated to breaking down the myths around people with disabilities and the impact they can have on the workplace.
“One of the most difficult barriers that people with disabilities face is stigma,” said Cal Schuler of Calgary Alternative Employment Services.
The myths, misperceptions, and stigma around disability often cause people to make unfair and untrue assumptions about people with disabilities.
“People look at a person with Cerebral Palsy and assume they also have a cognitive disability,” said Schuler.
Another perception is that it is difficult or expensive to accommodate a person’s disability in the workplace, which may not be the case. For example, one employee at AHS on the autism spectrum requires no accommodations in order to be a fully contributing member of the team.
“Thirty per cent of workplace adaptations come at no additional cost*,” said Schuler.
Flexible work arrangements or working from home or off-site may be viable solutions.
Workplace accommodations may come in the form of either compensating for or adapting to a disability. For example, someone who has limited manual dexterity may use a tracking ball instead of a computer mouse, or someone with vision loss may use high-contrast settings or applications on their computer to enable their work. These may be quite inexpensive, or the employer can find government funding to support the necessary accommodation.
AHS is working to grow and enhance diversity and inclusion within the organization, including creating opportunities for people with disabilities. Some actions the organization has taken include reviewing policies and practices to promote greater inclusivity, providing diversity and inclusion training to leaders and staff, and partnering with community organizations dedicated to helping people with disabilities finding employment.
One such partner is the Gateway Association, an Edmonton-based organization that works to empower people with disabilities to find meaningful work and live fully authentic lives.
“It takes time, but it’s really about fit,” said Renate Burwash, Director, Diversity and Inclusion Consulting at Gateway Association. “We don’t just place people for the sake of placing people, we work to ensure it’s a match for both the person and the organization – to set both parties up for success.”
In addition to Human Resources, AHS’s Addiction and Mental Health department has a supported employment program.
“Awareness is the first step,” said Perpetuah Muthui, Senior Advisor at AHS with Talent Acquisition’s Diversity and Inclusion team. “People with disabilities are not only capable of making a contribution to the workplace and having long, fulfilling careers – they want to.”
*Job Accommodation Network, 2014.