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The last frontier in diversity and inclusion: ability diversity

By Michael Bach, Cornell Certified Diversity Professional, Advanced Practitioner (CCDP/AP)

22% of Canadians and 26% of Americans live with a disability, yet of all people aged 25 to 64, those with disabilities are significantly more likely to be unemployed (41%) compared to people who are “able-bodied” (20%).

WHY? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN AND WHY SHOULD EMPLOYERS CARE?

Let’s start with some terminology; there’s a great debate about the verbiage used as it relates to ability diversity and many employers don’t have the first idea about what words they should be using in order to be inclusive.

The word “ability” is defined by Miriam Webster dictionary as “the quality or state of being able” whereas the word “disability” is defined as “a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person’s ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions.”

Do you see the difference in those two definitions? The first one passes no judgment. Ability simply is, and there are varying degrees of ability. The second uses words like “impairs”, “interferes”, and “limits”. If we look at it from a historical perspective, the word “dis” takes its origin from Latin to indicate a “lack of” or “the opposite of” something. So, the word “disability” really means a lack of, or the opposite of, ability. In itself, the terminology is designed to suggest that a person with a different ability is somehow less than. I will refrain from even bothering with a definition of the word “handicap” since it’s offensive, outdated, and only belongs in golf.

Ability diversity refers to “…varying abilities and disabilities. Differences in cognitive, social-emotional, and physical abilities add to the layers of ability diversity.” That is to say, we all have different abilities, and none is “better” than the other. Being “able-bodied” doesn’t make you “normal”, it makes you “common”, as there are simply more people who are able-bodied than there are not.

Part of the challenge we face is that the word “disability” is entrenched in Law, in Acts like the Employment Equity Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, all Human Rights legislation, and the proposed Accessible Canada Act. The word gets used over and over so much that it has become an acceptable part of our lexicon.

I, myself, am someone who identifies as living with a disability, largely because it’s far easier to say, “I live with a disability” as opposed to “I live with ability diversity”. The difference with me is that I don’t view my differing ability as something that impairs, interferes, or limits me in any way. In some ways, I’m reclaiming the word as a badge of honor, as if to say, “yeah I live with a disability…what’s it to you?”

Language is a funny thing in that it can be incredibly powerful. With one simple word, you can diminish a person and leave them feeling excluded, or you can lift them up and ensure they feel included.

Take the word “wheelchair” as an example. We refer to people who have mobility differences, people that use a wheelchair, as “in a wheelchair”, the operative word being “in” as if the wheelchair is part of their body. But it’s not. It’s simply a device that they use to gain mobility. So are shoes. People who are able to walk on their own, use shoes to ensure they don’t damage their feet, yet we don’t refer to those people as “people in shoes”. They’re just people.

Another part of the challenge toward inclusion of ability diversity is the concept of accommodation. When considering people with diverse abilities, we often consider how we’re going to have to accommodate them if and when we hire them. We may need to change things like elevators, ramps, signage, lighting, and so on, to ensure that people can access our workplaces.

But consider this: do you bring your own chair to work with you? Of course not! That would be absurd. Employers provide chairs because that’s just what people need. Yet, approximately 288,800 Canadians and 2.7 million Americans use a wheeled mobility device. They don’t need a chair. So, isn’t that chair that the employer provides a form of accommodation? If they didn’t provide it, people would have to stand or bring their own, right?

Everything is an accommodation in some way, shape, or form. Who it is accommodating – the majority or the minority – changes how we perceive that accommodation, from a “requirement” to a “nice to have”. If the lights go out, people who are visually impaired can often keep working. What’s wrong with those sighted people? Is the light a form of accommodation? (Hint: yes)

Why should employers care? Simply put: talent. Around one-quarter of the population lives with a diverse ability in some way, and that is a huge unemployed and underemployed pool of talent. That doesn’t take into consideration the percentage of the population that develops “episodic disabilities” (meaning they come and go, and are not necessarily permanent), such as the number of people who have experienced mental health challenges as a consequence of COVID-19.

Even with the current pandemic that is causing some industries to collapse, the knowledge economy is still facing a massive talent shortage. Employers are not in a position to leave any stone unturned in their talent search. But in order to ensure they are able to attract and retain people with diverse abilities, they need to make sure they are inclusive in their behavior.

HOW YOU RECRUIT SAYS EVERYTHING ABOUT WHO YOU ARE AS AN EMPLOYER

Have you ever considered that your recruiting process may be a barrier to access? Consider a few things:

  • Is your website accessible, meeting the highest standards of accessibility covered under the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)? If you don’t know what WCAG is, it’s safe to say the answer is no.
  • Do you ask candidates if they require any form of accommodation as part of the interview process, or do you leave it to the candidate to make a “special request”?
  • Do you provide candidates with questions in advance so they can prepare themselves?
  • Do you ask standardized questions, ensuring every candidate is asked the same questions? Are those questions based on the skills and abilities required to do the job?
  • Do you conduct interviews by panel, or do you make the candidate come back over and over?

The recruiting process is rife with problems, particularly for people with diverse abilities. The most important question you have to ask however is, are your recruiters and hiring managers prepared to deal with people that have diverse abilities? Do they know what they can and can’t ask? Do they know how to act in order to ensure they don’t alienate a person? Do they see ability diversity as an asset instead of a liability? If you don’t know, your work starts here.

HOW MANY STEPS?

In this day and age, it’s ridiculous to have to ask this question but, are your facilities accessible for everyone? It is stunning when people simply don’t know what that means. When touring buildings in Calgary as we were looking for a new office, the number that weren’t accessible, even though the realtor said they were… I lost count. No, it is not acceptable that the only accessible entrance is through the parking garage.

Accessibility is about dignity, and at this point in our societal evolution, it should be standard. Put yourself in the shoes of a person with a diverse ability and ask yourself a question: is it acceptable to you? If the only way you could get into your office were to go past the garbage dumpster, would you be happy with that? If the only washroom you could use required you to go down 25 floors, would that be acceptable for you?

People with diverse abilities have become used to accommodating a wide variety of situations just to function in society. And that simply shouldn’t be what is required. Look at your facilities through an accessibility lens and determine if there are any barriers to access for anyone, and then fix them.

EDUCATION IS THE GATEWAY TO EVOLUTION

In order to evolve, to become truly inclusive, we need education to help us understand that we all have different abilities; that everything is an accommodation; and that we need to practice the platinum rule: treat others the way they would like and need to be treated.

We need to understand that everyone has different needs and desires. No one is the same. By educating ourselves, we will get closer to understanding that. By treating everyone how they need to be treated, we become closer to creating truly inclusive work environments where everyone can succeed.

MICHAEL BACH, Cornell Certified Diversity Professional, Advanced Practitioner (CCDP/AP), Michael Bach is recognized as a thought leader and subject matter expert in the fields of diversity, inclusion and employment equity, bringing a vast knowledge of leading practices in a live setting to his work. He has deep experience in strategy development, stakeholder engagement, training and development, research, solution development and execution, employee engagement, data analytics, measurement and diversity scorecards, targeted recruiting strategies, marketing and communications, Employee Resource Groups, Diversity Councils, and diversity-related legislation. Michael has received repeated recognition for his work, including being named as one of the Women of Influence’s 2012 Canadian Diversity Champions. In 2011 he was honored as the Diversity Champion with the Catalyst Canada Honours Human Resources/Diversity Leader award. He also received the 2011 Inspire Award as LGBTQ Person of the Year and the 2011 Out on Bay Street Leaders to be Proud of LGBT Advocate Workplace Award. Michael has a Post Graduate Certificate in Diversity Management from Cornell University and also holds the Cornell Certified Diversity Professional, Advanced Practitioner (CCDP/AP) designation. Author of Bird of Feather.