I remember a situation years ago when a parent asked for help with his daughter. Although she was a business school graduate with some university, she couldn't seem to get a job.
When I met the young lady, I noted she had a vision disability; in fact, she had to have her nose right down to the paper to read. Sadly, when questioned further, this young woman told me that not one employer recognized or acknowledged her potential nor offered any workplace accommodation. As a result, she just couldn't seem to get a job and of course, she was depressed.
Lucky for me, I was in the need of an administrative assistant, and so I hired her. We immediately contacted the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), which helped us to purchase a special software package to increase the font size on the computer. Now she could get to work. However, that's only half the story.
The next half of the story is the wonderful journey this young woman has taken. During one of my absences, a client requested a consulting proposal with a quick turnaround date. Not being able to contact me, she reviewed several files, noted a proposal strategy and went ahead and wrote a proposal on my behalf. Guess what? She won the contract.
This made me realize that I didn't just have an administrative assistant; I had an employee with initiative and an underlying special talent I hadn't earlier observed.
Now 10 years later, this woman has developed into a highly skilled human resource consultant working in career development, executive search and labour relations. So what if she used a special software package to more clearly see her work? So what if she travelled by taxi because she couldn't drive? Today, this she is a senior labour relations professional in the health-care field -- highly successful and a happy, healthy contributor to society.
This example demonstrates the power of workplace accommodation. And believe me, there are many more wonderful successes. For instance, Giant Tiger, and its retail store located on Pembina Highway in Winnipeg was one of more than 30 employers recognized recently with a Lieutenant-Governor's Persons with Disabilities Employer Partnership Award. This award is given out annually in Manitoba and acknowledges and honours employers who have instituted and promoted best practices towards the employment, independence and service to people with disabilities.
Nominated by Usha Speer of Reaching Equality Employment Services (REES), Kevin Young, manager of the Pembina Giant Tiger store, hired a deaf employee in the role of sales assistant and/or associate. Utilizing an American Sign Language interpreter during initial product and service training, this candidate learned quickly and rose quickly to achieve employee of the month for her skills and customer service. Additional accommodations are minimal and include a badge that tells customers she is deaf and signs posted within the store. In addition, employees continue lunch-and-learn sessions to acquire basic ASL skills so that they can better communicate with their new colleague.
On the other hand, Premier Personnel, another not-for-profit group that focuses on disability employment, nominated its client, Randy Geisbrecht, branch manager for Casterland Winnipeg, a wholesale firm selling wheels and casters among other products. Casterland has hired employees with disabilities for more than 20 years. Their work is fairly routine, so little workplace accommodation needs to be made; however, managers are called upon to sensitively manage employee attention spans. Randy indicates that his employees are so loyal that they would come to work in spite of a snowstorm.
While these companies are only two of the many celebrated at the recent award event, it is proof that strategically building a workplace that's welcoming to everyone, including those individuals with disabilities, brings success for all. As you learned from these few examples, workplace accommodation for the most part is quite straightforward. For instance, you can modify workstations, redesign job duties, provide computer program-enhancement software and keyboard adaptations. Or, you might be able to provide minimal building modifications such as automatic doors, or visual-display alarm systems. Finally, providing employee training, one-to-one assistance and followup as required or allowing for flexible or part-time work is also a good example of work accommodation.
Frankly, candidates with disabilities represent a major untapped resource for building a talented workforce. Part of the reason for this anomaly is that most employers don't understand how they might accommodate a disability, nor do they know where to turn for help. In some cases, employers may be fearful of high training costs or liability for injury, yet if they don't take action, they miss the opportunity to hire loyal, dedicated employees who, as Giesbrecht indicates, will show up on your doorstep even in a snowstorm. And what company wouldn't want an employee who can achieve employee of the month so quickly?
But let's be honest: Employees with disabilities are challenged by inaccurate societal beliefs. Yet, these individuals want to be successful, they want to be part of a team and they want to contribute to an organization the same as anyone else. Not only that, there is much research that shows these candidates are typically well educated, many with one or more university degrees.
So, where can you as an employer turn for help in targeting the disabled population? There are numerous organizations in Manitoba that advocate on behalf of individuals with disabilities and who can provide expert advice to employers on how to work with candidates who require some form of accommodation. Turn to the many government directories that will direct you to the organization best suited to your needs.
In addition, there are many dedicated volunteers and consultants, such as Brian Stewart and members of the Joint Community and Government Members Committee on Disability who advocate on the issue of inclusion in the workplace and who can assist you to manoeuvre through the many service agencies available.
Manitobans are known to be modest, and therefore you'll find that most employers hesitate to seek public recognition for their efforts. That's where the lieutenant-governor's awards for disability accommodation come in. This is a celebration of employers who are willing to value and embrace employees with disabilities as part of their workforce team and to develop a true culture of inclusion.
All of the 2012 employer winners as well as their staff are role models and diversity champions, and their recognition was well deserved. Accommodation is achieved more easily than many leaders expect; rather, the key is to success is to think enable rather than disable.
Barbara J. Bowes is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org