Change your mindset, change your business

By Meenu Sikand

Tips for small and medium-sized firms

No business strategy would call for overlooking potential customers.

The case for any small or medium-sized business to achieve accessibility is clear: Millions of Canadians living with disabilities are worth $55.4 billion in spending power. Include their friends and family, who are intimately familiar with accessibility issues, and that collective buying power becomes $366.5 billion.

Meanwhile, Canadian policy makers tabled a proposed Accessible Canada Act in June 2018, a bill that supports new national accessibility standards that would set out how organizations can identify, remove and prevent barriers.

In Ontario, this vision is already underway as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act eyes a fully accessible province by the year 2025 for all providers of goods and services. This story is playing out in provinces across the country, with deadlines in place for full accessibility on the near horizon.

But there’s no need to wait on legislation to embrace accessibility. It’s sound economic strategy for any business to open itself to its full available market. That journey, which is easier and cheaper than most believe, begins with a decision to skip piecemeal changes and instead go all-in from the start.

Get to know the landscape

For busy small and medium businesses, it can feel daunting to think about where to begin with accessibility. The good news is there are myriad resources available to help, most of them free.

Local business improvement areas, chambers of commerce and industry-specific organizations such as the Retail Council of Canada are great places to start. A quick online search will turn up resources unique to certain professions, such as an accessibility guide produced by the Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario.

Federal and provincial training and development organizations such as the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work, Accessibility Ontario and Discoverability also have resources to help businesses with everything from barrier identification to accessibility audits. The federal government is itself a source of information and funding opportunities (up to $100,000) tied to meeting the needs of people with disabilities.

Committing a business to accessibility can also begin with conversations. Customers, clients, peers and friends can all help uncover hidden ideas that, on the surface, may not appear to be an issue (e.g., adjusting the lighting in an area of a restaurant for those whose vision or sensory disabilities can make it difficult to read a menu).

Taking stock of this landscape of support and soliciting opinions from a variety of a people can begin to reveal the many avenues to accessibility. Then, to implement changes, it really pays to have an insider’s perspective.

Consider hiring

One of the most remarkably overlooked perspectives can come from an untapped pool of talented and motivated workers: Those who have disabilities themselves.

Only half of Canadians with a disability are employed. Yet, according to Statistics Canada, nearly half a million Canadians with disabilities are job ready, most with a university degree in hand. But because of social, attitudinal and physical barriers, one third of job seekers with disabilities say they have been denied a role because of their disability, and 24 per cent say they have been denied a job interview.

From a business perspective, this makes little sense. These skilled workers are highly valuable from the trifecta of accessibility, dependability and profitability. Employees with disabilities nearly always exceed the expectations of their employers, and nearly eight out of 10 Canadians say they would be more likely to choose a business whose policy is to hire people with disabilities. Simply being open to this candidate pool delivers a unique boost to reputation.

The issue is less that employers don’t want to hire people with disabilities, and more about not knowing where to look. First, consider that if a business doesn’t look accessible, those with disabilities may be hesitant to apply. So businesses must look the part, project a willingness to accommodate employees and customers with special needs, and then reach out to organizations such as Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, whose Ready to Work program connects potential employers with a rich talent pool of youth and adults with disabilities.

Your first step

An accessible business starts with an accessible workplace. Once someone with a disability is on staff, it doesn’t take long to identify unrecognized gaps. And once those gaps are removed, a business instantly becomes more accessible to its clients and customers—and becomes a community ambassador for accessibility. In a world of online networks, word of mouth is a tremendous boon to any small or medium-sized business.

Engage employees with disabilities and your entire team in strategy sessions on where to make key accessibility improvements. Hang a window sign asking “How can we help you?” for customers and do the same online by configuring a website to be fully accessible. Train those in customer service on the principles of helping clients with disabilities. Most stores and offices rent from landlords, so whether it is an office tower or a shop on the street, advocate for all your clients’ needs to ensure they can enter and move around with dignity and freedom. Seek temporary solutions where necessary, such as through the nifty non-profit StopGap Foundation, whose portable ramps address the barrier of a step.

It is a myth that providing accessibility is costly; it can in fact often be achieved at zero cost, according to a survey by the US Department of Labor. No small or medium business needs a heavy marketing budget when, by becoming accessible and creating a welcoming attitude for all, it can reach a vast new market of customers and clients. It is at once an economic strategy and a social responsibility.

Making a conscious decision to go all-in on accessibility, with all its potential, comes down to a shift in mindset and a bolstered bottom line. It begins with the hiring process and dominoes into simple acts of empathy and advocacy, such as clearing a store entrance and ensuring plows don’t pile snow into accessible parking spaces near your business after a winter storm.

Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” With the right strategy and right attitude, small to medium-sized Canadian businesses have the opportunity to do just that.

Meenu Sikand is the executive lead, equity, diversity and inclusion at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.

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