Color & Control:

The Baker’s Dozen and the pandemic

cartoon of doughnuts with multi-coloured glazes

Ensuring inclusion during and after COVID-19.

By Mark Wafer

The year is 2020, and the demographic of disability in Canada is 22 per cent of the country’s population. Almost one in four Canadians live with a disability. This number is growing so much it equals the entire populations of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba combined.

The demographic of disability is our largest minority group and is, of course, the only minority group any of us can join at any time as a result of an injury or illness. When immediate family members are included, over 65 per cent of us are directly impacted by disability.

It should not be a surprise that employment numbers for persons living with a disability are dismal. Prior to COVID-19, figures showed that half of our community is not working. And this figure is considered conservative.

Canada has 550,000 recent high school graduates from the past five years who live with disabilities and have never been employed. Of those, 270,000 have a post-secondary education. Yet, if a person has never worked, paid income tax or contributed to CPP, he or she is considered to have no labour market attachment and are not captured in Stats Can’s unemployment rate.

Anecdotally, then we can assume that our 50 per cent unemployment statistic is likely higher; 70 per cent perhaps, and even greater for certain types of disability. For example, it is widely understood that the unemployment rate for Autistic individuals is 88 per cent.

Opening doors

Of course, many service sector agencies, non-profits, Government agencies, etc. are working to bridge the massive divide between disabled and non-disabled workforce participation and it’s duly noted that among factors at play, many joining the disability community are doing so from the perspective of aging, without interest or requirement for meaningful employment. As such then, it is important to focus on participation rates, which, thankfully, are improving for two reasons. The first—employers today are far more comfortable including workers with disabilities in meaningful and competitively paid jobs. A decade ago, this was not the case. The second—as more agencies take a business first approach to inclusion, more doors are opening. In Ontario, we are starting to see individuals with intellectual disabilities entering high paying, union positions in manufacturing. In 2008, when I became serious about my activism, I would have never thought of this as a possibility.

Our country has also seen remarkable progress by individuals who self-advocate. The 270,000 graduates with post-secondary degrees and diplomas typically don’t use an agency. Instead they self- advocate, apply for jobs, and in many cases use the business first approach to explain to employers why it is beneficial to hire them.

Although only 35 per cent of ‘disabled hires’ require accommodations, employers are now keen to understand how adjustments may help all employees.

We must celebrate how far we have come, while still pushing hard on the gas pedal as we move forward. We still have much to do, but personally, I am pleased.

Then along came the pandemic, COVID-19.

All in this together??

There is an expression that has become a recent favourite of our leaders: “We are all in this together.” While I understand what they mean, they could not be more wrong.

Those in the disability community are not at all in the same place as non-disabled Canadians. The hardship and the fear caused by this virus has been a massive burden. Those who rely on caregivers, those who have low vision and are unable to physically distance, deaf people who cannot get interpreter services without court action, wheelchair users who now find temporary barriers and autistic people who rely on repetition—the list could go on.

The world has been turned upside down for disabled people far more than it has for ableds. On top of all this is the very real fear of catching the virus itself, as many persons with disabilities have less capable immune systems.

Today, unemployment numbers are staggering, and while there is no real data available, we do know it has returned to a double-digit percentage. Our country, along with the rest of the world, is seeing massive unemployment within an imploding economy. While recovery is likely, it could take years. It is reasonable to assume that if tens of thousands of Canadians were out of work, the same number, by percentage, of persons with disabilities will also be out of work.

During a time of crisis, a pandemic, a war, or an economic collapse such as a depression, the lives of the disabled often become expendable. The federal Government in its quest to secure the Canadian economy was careful to include most demographics. They had a stipend for seniors of $300, but completely ignored the disabled until pressed to do so by activists.

The funding formulas for the disabled have always been poor. The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) is a complete disaster, designed to keep disabled people in poverty with annual benefits of about $13,000. Even worse is the fact that the number of Ontarians who leave ODSP to find employment is only 0.4 of 1 per cent. I addressed this a few years ago, asking the Director of ODSP how most people leave the program, she replied, “to die.” Unfortunately, she was right. This is a disgrace.

ODSP must be scrapped and rebuilt with guaranteed minimum benefits that lift those with disabilities out of poverty. (Similar programs in other provinces must be reviewed as well.)

Two years ago, I joined Federal Finance critic MP Pierre Poilievre to roll out Bill C-395, the Opportunities Act, to force provinces to change these draconian policies. The Bill failed in its second reading, which once again leads one to believe that being disabled in Canada is still burdensome. Employment, self-sustainability and being able to support oneself while contributing to society are therefore the only way to get ahead. This leads us to the question of where do we go from here.

We are in an unknown economic territory. What does a second or third wave of COVID-19 look like?

Seize the opportunity…

The fact is we will need to double our efforts going forward. Whether you are a job developer, coach, parent, teacher, activist, advocate or a disabled person looking for work, we will need to fight harder. Until recently, employers were often wary of work from home initiatives. COVID-19 has proven them wrong. This presents opportunities for those with disabilities. Some living with very significant disabilities will now be able to use their education, knowledge and skills without having to enter a physical workplace. They

will not need all the adjustments and accommodations or be hampered by unreliable accessible transportation. The data is already trickling out—work from home can be more productive. Higher productivity makes an employer giddy with delight.

Don’t rely on retail

Sadly, the real damage from this pandemic will be felt by workers in the developmentally disabled community. More often than not, these folks are employed in entry-level positions. About 80 per cent of them have jobs in retail and three quarters can be found in quick-service restaurants. Those jobs are in the most danger of drying up.

To be sure, we have made mistakes over the years relying too heavily on the retail sector to hire individuals living with Down syndrome, cognitive disabilities, and those who are autistic. Our “go to” was McDonalds and Wal-Mart. We will now be forced to look elsewhere.

Manufacturing jobs will likely surge as we become more protectionist and self-reliant (food manufacturing, in particular). These positions have a high turnover rate simply because of the mundane repetitiveness of these tasks, yet for an intellectually challenged person, this type of work can be perfect. The added benefit is that these jobs often pay considerably higher wages than retail and offer health benefits.

Use the data

Going forward, we must specifically focus our efforts on the business case for meaningful and competitively paid jobs. To do this we must rely on data driven, evidence-based methods created by empirical means and research. The business case for inclusion is the tool that will help us to recover the jobs we have lost and help us to gain a foothold in new sectors. As agencies, job developers and coaches we must adhere to the steps that we know are successful.

Seems like it’s time for me to update “The Bakers Dozen,” my thirteen most important evidence based facts that highlight the business case for prospective employers. (These originally came from the results of a 5 year “Rotary at Work” project that employed 1000 workers who live with disabilities.)


1. CREATE BUSINESS CHAMPIONS. A business champion helps you to bridge that gap of trepidation between the business and your sector by relaying the exact same message. When business speaks to business, peer to peer, there is understanding and acceptance, there is a feeling of comfort that each understands the other’s fears and challenges. A business champion does the heavy lifting for you. In most cases, a business champion is someone who has already successfully hired workers living with disabilities. This is scalable. In many cases, you may be asking a local Home Depot manager to speak to the owner of a local McDonalds. The Home Depot manager is your champion. It is likely in a smaller community that they know each other already through the local chamber of commerce or Business Improvement Association. From the perspective of scale, I once sat across the table from the CEO of General Motors. We spoke the same language. It works. Interestingly, over the past 25 years of promoting this strategy, I have never heard a business owner decline to be a champion once asked.

2. HAVE INCREASED EXPECTATIONS OF THE JOB SEEKER. During the 25 years I operated 14 Tim Horton’s locations, we employed more than 200 workers with a wide-range of disabilities; some were significant. When it comes to the disabled, we judge often. I can tell you that I always mentally judged a new employee’s capacity and capability despite the fact that I am disabled myself. I was wrong over 200 times. Workers with disabilities always outperformed the general expectations. It’s vital to keep an open mind of the potential, capacity and capabilities. We must NEVER make excuses for what a potential hire can, or cannot do. That can only be deter- mined organically as time goes on.

3. VIEW THE BUSINESS AS YOUR MOST IMPORTANT CLIENT. Act as a conduit for talent. The company will appreciate and respect your agency. A Dairy Queen franchise owner in Parry Sound, Ontario lists the local agencies as an extension of his Human Resource department. That’s valuable.

4. ENCOURAGE FAMILIES AND STAKEHOLDERS TO SPEAK WITH CHILDREN EARLY IN LIFE ABOUT WORK. Regardless of the severity of a disability, work must be the expectation for the future. There are a very low number of Canadians with disabilities who will not fit into this group. Everyone is employable until proven otherwise. This opportunity is lost when we fail to expect that work is the desired outcome. Interestingly, having a summer job or part time job while in school is the number one way to improve soft skills and it is the number one indicator of successfully landing a full-time job later on.

5. THE APPROACH TO BUSINESS MUST BE AT ALL TIMES, THE “BUSINESS CASE.” The business case is clear and compelling. Those who try to refute it always fail. The data is proven and it is evidence based. The nature of workplace may change but there is a core set of proven points that make up the basics. In short, based on the fact that a workplace, once capacity is driven, will reap economy gains from introducing workers with disabilities in meaningful and competitively paid positions, that a business will have a healthier bottom line and a clear competitive advantage. Capacity is the key. A business is unlikely to see explosive net gains by hiring one person who is disabled. In our business approximately 17% of our workforce at any given time was disabled. That’s what I mean by capacity.

6. DEVELOP RELATIONSHIPS WITH BUSINESS BEFORE APPROACHING THEM TO HIRE YOUR JOB SEEKERS. Nothing turns off a prospective employ- er quicker than having a job developer show up unannounced with news that they have the perfect employee for them. An agency should consider joining the chamber or a local service club to develop rapport with the business community. When the time comes and you have a job seeker who you believe fits the ask of an employer, make an appointment. Learn more about the business needs. Once you have developed an understanding talk to them about your job seeker. Visit the business often and take Timbits with you. That always pleases!

7. NEVER TAKE A JOB SEEKER ON A COLD CALL. This is uncomfortable for the business and the job seeker. It also shows a lack of judgement and professionalism.

8. UNDERSTAND THE WANTS AND WISHES OF YOUR JOB SEEKER. None of us apply for jobs where we have no interest. Don’t assume that everyone with an intellectual disability wants to work in retail. Ensure that your intake procedures cover this area. A wrong fit is a guaranteed failure and all of us want jobs that we can enjoy.

9. APPLY FOR JOBS WHERE JOBS EXIST. Agencies have a habit of applying for jobs that don’t exist. By all means, let an employer know that you have workers looking for particular jobs when they become available. Job creation is pointless. The employer does not value the work of made up positions, and once there is a downturn the first to be relieved is anyone non-productive. Almost all people with disabilities can and should fill positions that are being advertised. The sole exception is for those with significant intellectual disabilities who may need a job created through job carving. Yes, this can slightly increase labour costs, but has often had the opposite effect as tasks being completed by more experienced higher paid staff can now be completed by a new hire.

10. AVOID WAGE SUBSIDIES. The subsidies that
I am referring to involve splitting labour costs of a new hire with a government scheme for the disability community. There are a number of serious issues here. The first is that wage subsidies are rarely used to find work for a disabled person in an advertised job. It is often a job created by local business. When the subsidy expires the employer has to pay full wages for a made- up job. This creates an unfair situation for all. The employer thought they were doing something good, the employee most likely loves the job, and the parents or caregiver don’t want the worker back home. In many cases, the agency then enters into a deal that the worker remains on the job unpaid and calls it “work experience.” It’s almost always without a comprehensive training plan or a time constraint. This is illegal. In 2017, I was asked to step in and help a corporation who had a franchise in South Western Ontario. This restaurant owner had an employee who operated the dishwasher. She worked 12 weeks with a wage subsidy, and for 19 years afterwards worked for free. This can easily produce a costly lawsuit.

11. IT IS CRITICAL THAT YOUR INITIAL APPROACH BE WITH THE COMPANY’S OWNER/CEO. It is perfectly acceptable to have a day-to-day and ongoing relationship with managers, but the CEO or owner sets the company tone and intent. He or she must be aware that new employees might have a disability and the economic value of inclusion. The CEO simply must be supportive otherwise failure is guaranteed. One might suggest, however, that approaching or contacting a CEO is an impossible task. I would therefore refer them back to #1, your business champion.

12. DO NOT DOWNPLAY YOUR SIGNIFICANCE IN THE COMMUNITY. Agencies often place businesses and business owners on a pedestal,
which makes an approach to them more daunting. There is no business in town more important to the community than yours.

13. DRESS FOR SUCCESS. The casual dress code that has been with us for a few years, along with other trends such as the open workplace, are dying out. Casual has its place but when meeting an employer for the first time it is vital that you make the right impression. In my business, I would often have back-to-back meetings with vendors, food suppliers, and insurance companies, all trying to sell me the world’s best lettuce. All of these individuals have one thing in common: They dressed to impress. Jeans and a grateful dead t-shirt are probably not going to leave a positive image. To be taken seriously, dress seriously.

Mark Wafer is an award-winning disability rights activist and internationally recognized expert on the economics of inclusion. Until recently, he was the owner of six successful Tim Horton’s locations. In 25 years, Mark employed over 200 workers with disabilities in all areas, including senior management. He is an advisor to global governments and responsible for Canada’s national disability employment strategy. Mark is also a Motorsports enthusiast and former racecar driver.

Related Articles

Recent Articles


Complimentary Issue

If you would like to receive a free digital copy of this magazine enter your email.