Color & Control:

Ready to re-imagine workplaces 

By Fram Dinshaw

With the help of a $9 million dollar federal grant, two McMaster University experts are re-imagining how Canadian workplaces can better welcome and accommodate workers with disabilities.

Emile Tompa from the department of economics and Rebecca Gewurtz from the school of rehabilitation science (SRS) are joining forces with a six-year initiative called Inclusive Design for Employment Access (IDEA). 

Unlike others, Tompa and Gewurtz are taking an innovative tact. Rather than focus on skill development for persons with disabilities, their social innovation laboratory will focus on building up employer capacity and confidence so that they can meet the needs of diverse and talented candidates. “We have spent decades ‘skilling up’ persons with disabilities and improving employment opportunities by focusing on the individual, but what truly motivates me is creating genuinely inclusive workplaces that make Canadian workplaces more competitive,” said Gewurtz, an associate professor of the SRS.

“We are not trying to re-invent the wheel,” said Tompa, senior scientist at the Institute for Work and Health and associate professor in the department of economics.

“We want employers to move past their apprehensions, such as concerns about the requirements of government legislation or fears over what to do if a potential employee with a disability does not work out. It is all part of the stigma we are trying to combat.”

Both Tompa and Gewurtz believe that innovative workplaces consider flexibility in how, where and when people work—flexible scheduling, the option to work remotely, different ways of communicating and connecting with colleagues—as well as modifications to the workplace environment. Employers also need robust human resource policies to welcome persons with disabilities.

Addressing labour shortages
Their social innovation laboratory includes three core and two cross-cutting incubator hubs made up of groups of researchers and community partners. The three core hubs are 1) Workplace systems and partnerships, 2) Employment support systems and
3) Transitions to work and career development. The two cross-cutting hubs are inclusive environmental and design, and disruptive technologies and the future of work. All hubs have joint involvement of researchers and community partners.

Hub teams will co-design and pilot workplace solutions for use in the field, adjusting and scaling them up across Canada, as appropriate. The IDEA laboratory will focus on activities such as developing guidance and resources for workplace accessibility planning and reporting; job coaching and wrap-around supports; and smooth transitions of new labour-market entrants during the school-to-work transition.

Many persons with disabilities currently live in poverty and depend on social assistance, with many suffering from a lack of housing and steady employment, effectively making them “second-class citizens.” However, many want to work, have valuable skills and could make important contributions to the labour market. Tompa suggests that a successful skilling up of employers to accommodate workers with disabilities will be beneficial for society. More inclusive workplaces will both help address Canada’s ongoing labour shortage and help reduce the poverty, dependency and marginalization of persons with disabilities. Factors such as gender, sexual orientation and racialized minority status may also contribute to their ongoing marginalization so another key consideration for researchers and community partners is intersectionality.

Economic benefits
“If we include persons with disabilities in the labour market, levelled them up to the same rates of engagement and remuneration as everyone else, Canada would increase its GDP by 3.2 per cent, according to 2017 figures,” claims Tompa.

Tompa and Gewurtz are part of the first cohort of researchers to receive NFRF funding. They are one of seven groups receiving NFRF funding totaling $144 million from 2021 to 2027. The six other NFRF-supported projects include research on next-generation organ transplants, spinal cord repair, repurposing marine by-products, biodiversity tracing, bio-conservation to improve Indigenous health and wellbeing, and protecting metallic surfaces. 

Fram Dinshaw is a Communications Coordinator at McMaster University.

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels.

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