Job seekers with disabilities are a largely untapped demographic.
When Kevin McNicholls arrived at his job one day in 2010, he had no idea that his role would completely change. McNicholls had been a labourer and maintenance worker at Rack Petroleum for two years, and on this particular day, he was cleaning a conveyor when his right arm became trapped. The accident took his arm, along with his ability to perform the required job functions.
At the time of McNicholls’s accident, his employer didn’t have a designated safety officer. McNicholls would fill that role as part of his return to work plan, moving from a field position to an office job. The company’s willingness to accommodate him with time off and training made him feel comfortable about continuing to work there.
“They’ll let me come and go as I please,” he explains. “If I need time off to go to the doctor or if I’m stressed because of my injury, they’re very good about that. Would I change to another employer? No, because I don’t know what they’re going to be like. Will I get that time off? Another employer might not like that.”
According to Employment and Social Development Canada statistics, McNicholls has good reason to think this way. Research shows that Canadians with disabilities are employed at a rate of 47 per cent, compared with 74 per cent for Canadians without disabilities. The numbers also show that more than 400,000 people with disabilities can and want to work, but cannot find employment.
Emily Hurd, senior supervisor at Partners in Employment – Saskatoon, a division of the Saskatchewan Abilities Council, says that employers might be reluctant to hire someone with a disability due to the perception that expensive or complicated accommodations will be required. Often, this perception is incorrect, as many simple solutions are available for physical or cognitive barriers.
“An example would be for people with hearing impairments – we’ve put in really inexpensive solutions like flashing lights to get someone’s attention using a visual aid,” Hurd says. “The solution really depends on the type of business and the disability, but accommodations end up serving everyone. If you’re a business in the community and you’re putting in a ramp somewhere to make your building more accessible, that’s not only going to help the employee who needs a mobility device, it’s going to help your customers who might have that same issue.”
Employers who are interested in hiring from this often-untapped demographic can look to employment agencies for help. Agencies that specialize in placing job seekers with disabilities can provide a number of services to both employers and potential employees.
“We’re designed to help individuals with barriers to employment, but our goal is also to assist employers to help them find the right employee who meets their requirements,” says Hurd. “We do everything from assessing job function to identifying and providing candidates. We can provide interview support, we can address questions about hiring people with a disability or an employment barrier, and we can offer training strategies or support. We always want to make the right fit. If you have an employee who’s happy and you have an employer who’s happy, it can, hopefully, be a long-lasting relationship.”
Through a pilot project that took place last year, Partners in Employment contacted 153 employers in the agriculture industry to help match them with job seekers with disabilities. The project resulted in about 45 matches, and revealed some industry-specific challenges such as transportation to rural areas, on-site living accommodations and job-specific training. For employers who are serious about being inclusive in their employment practices, however, Hurd says these challenges can be overcome.
“When employers have an open mind and are willing to work with job seekers’ needs, they’re able to build really powerful relationships. It’s important to look at each person individually and to look at their strengths. They may not be able to do things the same way as another person, but everyone has their own merits. Everyone deserves the opportunity to find employment.”
When employers have an open mind and are willing to work with job seekers’ needs, they’re able to build really powerful relationships.Emily Hurd
Making It Work
McNicholls’s own experience was that his employer needed to make few accommodations for him to move into his new role. There was an adjustment period for him, including the need to complete university training and receive his designation, but overall, he has found working with a disability to be manageable.
“After I had my accident, my philosophy was either I can sit on the couch and be sad, or I can actually get up and go do something,” he says. “So that’s what I did. I’ve always been an up-and-go kind of person. Rack didn’t really make any changes to the workplace to accommodate me. They didn’t have to. When I first came back, everyone would ask if I needed help with anything. But I found that I could pretty much do everything myself. Obviously, there are some things I can’t do, and if I can’t do them and I ask, then someone else will do them for me. But I don’t find I have many issues, and I don’t feel I’m discriminated against.”
While his employer hasn’t had to make accommodations for him, McNicholls says Rack Petroleum has done so for employees before. To accommodate a colour-blind employee, the LED lighting on the loading scale readout was changed from red to green so the employee could read it. He adds that the company would have no problem hiring others with disabilities, though he notes that the roles available might be limited.
“It really depends on the severity of the disability,” he says, “But for the most part, they wouldn’t likely be able to be out in the field. It would be office work – something like what I’m doing. The safety issues involved make it difficult to have people with physical disabilities working labour-type jobs in this industry.”
McNicholls’s advice for those with disabilities who are looking for work is simple, and has helped him through the past several years.
“People should be employed based on their abilities, not their disabilities. You are no less of a person because you may be missing a limb or you can’t walk. I am on every safety committee and am constantly working on our safety program. I still go actively into the field and do inspections as part of my role. You can still make strides in the industry.”
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