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It's about ability

Disabled workers are a great, under-used resource

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Looking for a job is a full-time job.

If a job-hunter has a disability or a health condition, finding work is even tougher. Statistics show disabled Canadians have a more difficult time finding work and staying employed. Their challenges are often significant and that may explain why disabled employees are underrepresented in the workforce.

Sometimes, candidates may experience discrimination. Or there may be a lack of knowledge about how the disabled worker be accommodated. Managers are not in tune with the workplace and technology adaptations available today.

However, as the working population ages, accommodating disabled workers is going to become increasingly important. McMaster University disability researcher Emile Tompa says disability issues will soon become a challenge that touches all people, including families and the workplace.

The Reaching E-Quality Employment Agency (REES) in Winnipeg says one in every six people in Manitoba has a disability.

So what are the myths about disabled workers?

One of the key myths is disabled workers create concerns about safety. For instance, how will a deaf person hear a fire alarm? How will a visually impaired person see what's going on?

Accommodating these disabilities in today's workforce is quite easy. For instance, handheld phone devices turned on vibration mode can provide the warning needed to signal a fire alarm or call a worker to a staff meeting. On the other hand, new software solutions are available to assist many of those with visual impairments.

A second myth is a disabled employee is less productive. This is pure nonsense.

In fact, my first employee was visually impaired. The only accommodation required was a special piece of software to enhance the ability to use a computer. She worked for me for 10 years and has become a senior human-resources leader in a large workplace. She has also completed a university degree, something she had abandoned during her younger years.

Myths such as these have prevented persons with disabilities from reaching their potential and being equal partners in the labour market. As a result, a number of federal and provincial government policies have been enacted to correct the situation. The federal government's Opportunities Fund for Persons with Disabilities is one such initiative. It helps people with disabilities prepare for, obtain and maintain employment or self-employment. The provincial government has the Employment Assistance Service Program and the Hiring Incentive Project, which help disabled workers.

The dedication of organizations such as REES needs to be acknowledged. This organization has a 25-year history of promoting, facilitating and maintaining the employment of people with disabilities or health conditions by providing diverse and customized employment, training and consultation services.

For instance, the agency has interacted with more than 7,000 consumers and employers and provided direct service to 450 individuals, with 200 of them gaining employment and at least 13 becoming self-employed. The agency works closely with employers through training and advisory services to help them remove obstacles and accommodate disabled employees.

It's important to diversify the workforce. There are a number of Manitoba businesses, big and small, who are doing just that. They are successful in engaging this talented yet underrepresented group of workers.

Take Donna McLeod, for instance. Although she was born with a hearing disability, Donna learned to speak and read lips. Throughout her career, technology such as email, instant messaging, chat programs and text messaging has made communication easier. Even the telephone is no longer a barrier because of programs such as Caption Call. After being laid off from the former Canadian Wheat Board, Donna took advantage of the services of REES and got a new job in another large organization.

Each year, REES holds an annual fundraising gala. The upcoming 2014 event celebrates 25 years of service and features keynote speaker Bill Klein from TLC's highly popular show, The Little Couple. Prior to becoming a high-profile TV star, Klein earned a biology degree, honed his sales skills and was a pharmaceutical executive. Today, Klein is an accomplished entrepreneur, public speaker and philanthropist.

As part of the gala event, REES will hand out a number of awards. These include recognizing small, medium and large employers that have successfully hired and retained staff who have disabilities.

One award will be given to an individual who has made a significant contribution in supporting the vision and values of REES. Lastly, the Debbie Bean award will go to an individual who has played a significant role in promoting disability employment.

Thankfully, the term disability has changed significantly and employers are looking past the concept of impairment and focusing on ability. Any employer who wishes to capitalize on this workforce or join in the upcoming celebration on June 5 can contact the REES office.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, M.Ed., is president of Legacy Bowes Group and can be contacted at barb@legacybowes.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 H1

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