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Great Idea: Ready, Willing and Able

Finding work for people with intellectual disabilities

When Mark Wafer got his first Tim Horton’s franchise up and running, he was putting in long hours and looking for reliable employees. One day a teacher from a local high school came into his coffee shop and recommended a young man with Down syndrome. While he didn’t really know what to expect, Wafer decided to hire Clint Sparling – a move that gave birth to a working relationship that would last over two decades and dramatically alter Wafer’s business model.

Wafer partnered with community organizations who specialize in helping people with intellectual disabilities and, over the years, has expanded his workforce to include 33 people with disabilities in his seven-franchise operation. He says that his employee turnover rate is half that of the Tim Horton’s average (35 per cent as opposed to 75 per cent turnover in most franchises) mainly because he hires people with disabilities to work alongside the rest of his staff. These employees often have perfect attendance records and demonstrate an excellent commitment to their jobs.

Mark Wafer has convinced over 200 of his fellow Tim Horton franchise owners to follow his lead and hire people with disabilities. So, is this trend catching on? The short answer: not really.

While schools across Canada have done an admirable job of integrating students with intellectual disabilities into the classroom, the same cannot be said for integrating this same segment of the population into the workforce. According to Statistics Canada, our nation has an employment rate of 79 per cent. This means that almost 80 per cent of those available to work are working. However (and this is where the numbers get disturbing), only 49 per cent of people with a disability are working – putting their employment rate way out of whack when compared to the rest of the nation. And, the more severe the disability, the lower the employment rate.

The main obstacle to getting people with intellectual disabilities working: the attitudes and perceptions of society as a whole. Many employers are trapped in a number of common myths relating to people with intellectual disabilities. In a study of 2 000 workers with disabilities, the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) picked apart these myths. Here’s some of what they came up with:

It costs too much – employers are concerned that hiring a person with an intellectual disability is going to cost them money. They worry that resources will have to be redirected to support the new hire and, in the end, the prospect will be too risky in terms of the bottom line. The JAN study concluded that 57 per cent of employers saw no additional cost in hiring a person with a disability, while 37 per cent reported a nominal cost of roughly $500. Give a person with an intellectual disability the right job and the bottom line will be just fine.

They can’t / don’t work as hard – according to the JAN study, 73 per cent of employees believe that people with intellectual disabilities work hard and contribute as much as any other employ to the success of the business to which they belong.

They can’t handle the work and will leave – with an average turnover rate across the board of nearly 50 per cent, people with intellectual disabilities shatter this myth with a stellar seven per cent turnover rate once they get hired to a job.

They’re going to miss a lot of work – in reality, 86 per cent of employees with an intellectual disability have an attendance record that is as good or a better than their co-workers.

This is the ammunition agencies across Canada use to help employers make the decision to hire people with intellectual disabilities. Ready, Willing and Able (the product of a collaboration between the Canadian Association for Community Living and the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder Alliance) has managed to help 2 100 people with intellectual disabilities find work across Canada. They have formed solid partnerships with companies like Costco, Home Depot and Purolator. Despite proven results, the federal funding formula that keeps Ready, Willing and Able afloat was altered and parts of the organization had to be shut down, further frustrating national efforts to find employment for this under-utilized sector of the workforce. The Canadian Abilities Foundation (CAF), active in disability advocacy since 1986, recently launched an initiative called It’s Time that seeks to enlighten employers regarding the merits in hiring employees with disabilities. Both organizations are proving instrumental in facilitating an attitude shift across Canada. The message: Canada is a nation of individuals with vary abilities and no group – especially a group with so much to offer – should be left out of the mix.

Meanwhile, progress – albeit slow – is resulting in an increasing awareness that hiring people with intellectual disabilities is good for business. In addition to high employer satisfaction, as well as employee retention and productivity, employers are also reporting improved company morale and customer appreciation. Colleagues working alongside people with intellectual disabilities report feeling a greater connection to their fellow workers and an improved understanding of people with disabilities. Customers say they view companies that utilize inclusive hiring practices as companies they want to do business with. In other words, hiring people with intellectual disabilities makes people want to come to work and customers want to send their business to companies that embrace inclusivity.

In addition to these benefits, employers are not left on their own to figure out how best to use their intellectually disabled employees. There are a great number of agencies nationwide that will help employers understand the most effective ways to communicate and use their disabled employees. Ready, Willing and Able and the Canadian Abilities Foundation are an excellent starting point to discover how to access community resources to help employers deal with their new hires. The University of British Columbia’s Centre for Inclusion and Citizenship is also an excellent resource.

At the end of the day, people with intellectual disabilities pose no greater challenge than any other employee. A good employer simply needs to value the gifts of each employee, train that employee with patience and understanding, and expect that the employee will do their job. In many ways, employees with intellectual disabilities outperform their coworkers when their employers give them the job and mentorship they need to get the job done.


Agency links:

Canadian Abilities Foundation – http://abilities.ca/.

Inclusion B.C. – http://inclusionbc.org/.

Ready, Willing and Able – http://readywillingable.ca/.

UBC’s Centre for Inclusion and Citizenship – https://cic.arts.ubc.ca/. Check out their Transitioning Youth with Disabilities and Employment (TYDE) program at https://cic.arts.ubc.ca/transitioning-youth-with-disabilities-and-employment-tyde/.


Do you want to understand the kind of attitude change needed to re-shape the Canadian workforce to include people with intellectual disabilities? Take a look at Inclusion B.C.’s Statement of Values and Principles. Inclusion B.C. is a federation that includes people with intellectual disabilities, families and community agencies. Their Statement of Values and Principles lays out their perspective in no uncertain terms. In fact, the Statement read like a guide for all people to live a just and compassionate life.

We believe:

  • in the assurance of life, dignity and respect for all
  • that children are best nurtured by a family that knows, loves and honours them for who they are
  • that all children have the right to be educated in regular classrooms with appropriate levels of support
  • that adults have a right to choose where and with whom they will make a home
  • that relationships and friendships are essential to enrich our lives
  • that all people have the dignity of taking risks
  • that all individuals are entitled to enough money to have a reasonable quality of life
  • that all individuals are entitled to the services and supports required to ensure their full participation in our society
  • that real work means real pay
  • that each person can determine their own needs and make their own decisions, and when necessary, must receive the support to do so
    that the involvement of families and support networks contributes to everyone’s safety and well-being
  • that services and supports must be delivered in a way that respects an individual’s diverse history, culture, race, religion and sexual orientation
  • that remembering and sharing our history will help guide and build our vision for the future
  • that inclusive communities enrich the lives of all citizens

By: Sean Dolan


Reprinted with permission: Inclusion B.C. (inclusionbc.org).

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