Queen's University IRC

Dealing With the Disabled: Are HR Leaders Up to the Challenge?


Kirsteen MacLeod

January 1, 2009

Increasingly, human resources practitioners are being challenged to help break down barriers to the participation of employees with disabilities. Those barriers, alas, are proving tough to overcome.

Certainly a growing percentage of people with disabilities are finding work, according to the latest Statistics Canada report Participation and Activity Limitation Survey (PALS) 2006: Labour force experience of people with disabilities in Canada. As well, an aging population means disabilities in general are on the rise. “Most of us at sometime in our lives will have a disability,” says Rosemary Lysaght, Assistant Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy at Queen’s University. These may include sight, speech, and hearing deficits, as well as mobility, mental health, intellectual, and learning disabilities.

But many impediments to tapping the talent of workers with disabilities remain. One issue is skill gaps among workers with disabilities. Lysaght’s research indicates lack of employment training programs for people with intellectual disability is a significant obstacle. Workers with late onset disabilities also often require retraining in order to qualify for jobs with lower physical or emotional demands.

A second issue, says Lysaght, are negative employer attitudes. “I don’t think HR people are really sold on the fact that people with disabilities can do a good job,” she says. Even those who do get hired are often pigeonholed in low-paying, low status, part-time jobs. This especially applies to people with mental health and intellectual disabilities, the most marginalized of all disabled populations.

For employers, getting the right support to determine how to fit people with disabilities into the workforce can be a challenge. “It’s not the knowledgebase for the average HR person,” says Lysaght. “But if there’s someone such as an occupational therapist to tell them, ‘Here’s the kind of accommodation this person needs,’ it can work really well.”

Research has demonstrated that employees with disabilities do better when there is a good fit between their strengths and the job. “If you had someone with Asperger’s syndrome, and the job involved technology, attention to detail, and focus, it could be a good match,” says the Queen’s researcher. “But depending on their skills, that person may not do well in a sales job.”

Better models need to be developed for matching a person’s skills and a job. Lysaght says” task extraction” is one possibility: she worked with one organization that helps employers identify routine tasks that are time-wasters for their employees, then takes these tasks to create a job that is a good match for someone with an intellectual disability.

“It’s brilliant, as it really maximizes the potential of your workforce,” says Lysaght. In another setting, a new job for a shipyard worker who had sustained spinal cord injury was created. “His employer figured out what office tasks needed to be done, took pieces of the workload of others, set him up on a computer, and got him a special phone with voice controls. Now they really count on him, as he’s smart, reliable and an excellent worker.”

While it may take some effort, it pays to find ways to reduce barriers to inclusive employment, says Lysaght. The benefits of accommodating and supporting people with disabilities in the workplace include:

A more stable workforce. Workers with disabilities are often the most reliable, and will show loyalty to an accommodating employer.

Diversity in the workplace. “If it’s the kind of organization where ideas matter, that’s creative, studies show it is better to have various kinds of people. So having people with disabilities could be beneficial.”

Greater cohesion and engagement. “In one study, people with intellectual disabilities, ranging from high- to low-functioning, were proactively brought in and their skills matched to jobs. Researchers interviewed the co-workers, and they were saying, ‘I love talking to them – they have given me a whole new perspective. It makes this place feel like more of a family.'”

A positive public image. “There’s some evidence of a value-add to having people with disabilities in the workplace, as it contributes to an organization’s reputation as a good corporate citizen. However employers shouldn’t do it if they are just trying to be philanthropic, just to help some poor disadvantaged person.”

HR managers have an important role in removing barriers for people with disabilities, Lysaght adds. They are well-placed to help ensure a good fit between a person’s skills and the job; to facilitate better accommodation by involving experts such as occupational therapists and other rehabilitation specialists; and to provide ongoing support once the person is in a job. “The notion of providing appropriate supports and building asocial network in the workplace, one that’s welcoming – that is huge for people with disabilities,” says Lysaght. “They need to feel welcome and respected, and that other people aren’t resenting them or afraid of them. A lot of it is trickle-down: if there is good leadership in one area, such as HR, that can get other workers on board, and ensure that supports and accommodations are there for the person with a disability.”

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