Where’s the Equity & Accessibility in ‘Equal Opportunity’?

My brother Geoffrey came to visit from England over the recent holiday. His journey to get here was stressful and complicated, and his stay was eventful. But not because of Covid (although that didn’t help!).

Geoff has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and the disease has progressed to the point of him being in a wheelchair, with very limited use of his legs. He can do a lot on his own and for himself, but he cannot do all things on his own, particularly when there are barriers. He can’t navigate his wheelchair through manual doors that open outwards; if there’s no dropped-curb on the sidewalk, he has to keep wheeling until he finds one; if the clothing racks in a store are too packed and close together, he can’t go into that store — the list goes on and on…

So where is the equity we’re hearing and talking so much about? In contrast to equality, (the same levels of support and resources provided to everyone, regardless of their needs) equity recognizes that everyone does not begin at the same place. Equity is about providing varying levels of support and resources, dependent on the specific needs of the individual or group, in order to achieve greater fairness of outcomes for everyone. I’ll say that again – to achieve greater fairness of outcomes for everyone. It’s about levelling the playing field so that everyone can live full lives and thrive.

Despite the fact that Canada has the Accessible Canada Act, and last year, BC passed Bill 6 – 2021: Accessible British Columbia Act (which allows the provincial government to establish “accessibility standards” to identify, remove and prevent barriers to accessibility and inclusion) we still have such a long way to go. Barriers are everywhere, and people living with disabilities (mental and/or physical) are not being provided with what they need to live full lives and thrive.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability reported employment rates for working-age adults at 59% for persons with disabilities, versus 80% for persons without disabilities. As a compassionate and empathetic person, that statistic alarms me. But if I put on my business hat, I see a huge opportunity, particularly during these times of extreme labour shortages. So, why are organizations not seeking out and hiring people with disabilities? Some of the reasons could include the following beliefs:

  • People with disabilities “don’t apply for our jobs”
  • People with disabilities can only do entry-level jobs
  • Perceived complexity and expense of special accommodations
  • It’s more difficult to supervise employees with disabilities
  • People with disabilities cannot be disciplined or terminated

These are all myths, based on the assumptions and unconscious biases we have about people with disabilities. We have to do better.

Call to Action

Whether you’re in a role of leadership or not, there are things we can all do, starting here and now to make our workplaces more inclusive for people with disabilities. Here are just a few to start with:

  • Be aware that not all disabilities are visible and so some adaptations needed in the workplace may not be as obvious
  • Assess your organization’s recruitment / application processes to make sure your website and tools are accessible
  • Demand the right training, not only for hiring managers, but for everyone in the organization
  • Reach out to local community partners and agencies that are supporting people with disabilities
  • Understand that the work is never “done,” it requires ongoing and lifelong commitment

For more information about Kwela’s approach to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, including training and strategy development, please contact Helen Schneiderman or Laura Villacrusis.

Helen Schneiderman, Partner