Neglected or Hidden


Connecting Employers and People with Disabilities

There are bottom-line reasons for making sure that employers build diversity into their work force.

A workplace culture that is diverse is seen to give employers a competitive edge. In fact, those organizations that have instilled a broadly inclusive workplace culture claim it gives them access to the best workers available in a time of skills shortages. They also see such tangible returns as improved decision making, less absenteeism, increased productivity and an enhanced reputation as an employer of choice.

So why are so many employers failing to tap into the wealth of human potential in people with disabilities? After all, as a group they make up some 13 per cent of the working age population.

That is precisely what we set out to determine through Neglected or Hidden, a study undertaken in collaboration with the Canadian Abilities Foundation. And the results are in.

With unemployment close to 50 per cent above the rate for non-disabled Canadians, people with disabilities are looking for answers to their employment dilemma. Particularly troubling to Canadians with disabilities and the organizations that serve them is that fact that many employers indicate they regularly face significant challenges finding appropriately trained workers to fill vacant positions. While employment opportunities remain stable and even limited in many sectors, others, like the energy and transportation industries, are desperate for skilled workers. This has forced them to seek new labour pools and adopt non-traditional recruitment strategies in order to meet their human resource needs. It would appear, however, that few employers and job seekers with disabilities have found each other, in spite of the opportunities available to both parties.

This is a hot-button issue for the thousands of unemployed people with disabilities who often live in poverty. It’s no less important to employers, particular those who must comply with employment equity legislation, and who face sanctions for failing to build a diverse work force.

About the Study
Over the past several months, well over 1,200 Canadians with disabilities from all regions of the country told us about their workplace experiences and job search efforts. The majority responded to a detailed questionnaire via the Internet. Many others chose to be interviewed by our researchers or an employment counsellor within their community.

We are very pleased to report that individuals with all types and levels of disability responded to the survey, including higher than anticipated numbers with moderate to high-level disabilities. The majority of these respondents were also working, so their insights in terms of successful job finding strategies are particularly important to the study.

We discussed job finding strategies with close to 50 non-government organizations that provide employment-related services for job seekers with disabilities. All were eager to share information on current approaches and to examine new and more effective ideas in this challenging field.

We also asked over 75 employers to share their perspectives on employment and disability issues. Regrettably, many had little information to share, and even fewer had experience recruiting workers with disabilities into their organizations. Several responded negatively to our request for information, and went on to display a stunning lack of understanding of the overall capabilities of workers with disabilities.

On a more positive note, many employers already have policies and programs in place to reintegrate employees who develop disabilities, and are also eager to learn more about this untapped work force.

What the Research Reveals
Since it is impossible to detail all of our research findings in this article, our intention is to introduce the study and highlight key observations. More detailed information will appear in future issues of ABILITIES and can also be found on EnableLink at

Perhaps one of the overarching findings of our research was the disconnect between employers, people with disabilities and the service providers who help these individuals enter the work force. The commitment and passion of workers with disabilities and those assisting them is sound. And more than enough employers across the country have opened their minds and opened their doors to workers with disabilities to demonstrate that the employment challenge these workers face must be resolvable. Yet the problem has persisted for years, and will continue to do so without meaningful change.

“There seems to be a marketing gap: agencies send the candidate with a disability, with a generic résumé, and say, ‘Can you find a job for this person?’ There doesn’t seem to be a focus. They should say, ‘Here’s this person and here’s what he can do for you.’ The résumé should reflect that.”
— Major western Canadian employer

A sizeable percentage of the employers we interviewed were willing to hire qualified job seekers with disabilities, but were facing challenges in moving forward.

The majority indicated that, while they have workplace reintegration programs in place for employees who acquire disabilities, they have not introduced proactive recruitment strategies targeting new applicants with disabilities for jobs in the organization. Many simply did not know where to turn for help and, to their knowledge, had also never been contacted by a community organization that assists job seekers with disabilities. Some employers have explored targeted recruitment tactics such as working with disability services providers and advertising in non-mainstream press, but found their efforts were not producing the desired results.

There are hundreds and hundreds of disability-related organizations across Canada that provide some level of employment support to their clients. Most of the organizations we interviewed, however, have limited ongoing contact with employers, and are typically reactive in their efforts. Factors contributing to this approach include the organizations’ often limited financial resources, conflicting priorities and their lack of experience with how the private sector operates.

We did, however, find a small number of organizations across the country that are making significant inroads with employers in their respective regions. Their approach is very much based on relationship building. Many employers we interviewed spoke of the need for partnerships, and this is precisely the angle these successful organizations have chosen. They spend time with the employer to become familiar with its culture, its products and services, the demands of individual jobs and where the job opportunities are. It is only then that the organization begins its work to identify and prepare the most suitable candidates for referral to their employer partner.

Post-placement support and periodic follow-ups are other elements of the service that help ensure both greater employer satisfaction and more positive outcomes for the worker. (Of course, the idea of “after-sales service” is not a novel concept to the private sector.)

One organization in Atlantic Canada started its new approach with just a single employer “partner,” and our interview with the employer confirmed a high level of satisfaction with the service. In another region, a “coordinating agency” has grown its services to well over 20 employer partners. Here the approach is somewhat different, in that the agency also partners with other employment-related service providers that refer candidates to it. Employers prefer the “one-stop-shop” approach because their recruitment efforts are simplified and candidates are carefully screened before referral, and it saves them a great deal of time. The partner organizations also benefit in that they can focus their attention and resources on the skills upgrading and job readiness of their clients rather than looking for employers who might be in need of a worker.

“The business environment being what it is, they are just too busy to do this [outreach]. Everyone wants to do the right thing, but the individual’s time is limited, stress is over the top, and there is not much room for more effort.”
— Central Canadian Employer

Another common concern expressed by employers was that, likely due to past discrimination, applicants are rarely prepared to self-identify that they have a disability. A response from a Quebec employer of over 500 workers was typical: “In my eight years here, I have only had one person with a visible disability present himself for a job.” From this employer’s perspective, successful recruitment of people with disabilities currently takes a great deal of effort – and it should not need to. Partnering with a key service provider, as described above, should not only overcome the supply issue facing willing employers, but also the self-identification dilemma facing workers with disabilities.

One of the more interesting observations in our study is how employed respondents found their jobs. Of the leading categories, 24 per cent did so through a friend, another 20 per cent via an organization serving people with disabilities, and 11 per cent through a newspaper ad.

Employers we interviewed, however, rarely used these recruitment approaches. More and more employers provide a significant amount of information about their organizations on their website, and typically include an “employment opportunities” web page. As a result, they receive a good deal of employment inquiries via the Internet. Through this increasingly popular recruitment tool, they have come to expect applicants who are not only well qualified for positions sought, but also well versed on their prospective employer.

In our study, however, only seven per cent of workers with disabilities used the Internet to find their job.

Because many unemployed people with disabilities depend on financial support from government to help make ends meet, we asked them what financial incentive would be the most effective at reducing these high unemployment levels. Of the various options provided, over 60 per cent felt that financial incentives to employers who hire people with disabilities would be either the most effective or the second most effective means of reducing high unemployment among people with disabilities.

In contrast, most large employers we interviewed did not see financial incentives as a determining factor for hiring people with disabilities. They are simply looking for a more effective means of identifying qualified people with disabilities to fill job vacancies. A good number of smaller employers did suggest, however, that financial incentives could be a motivating factor.

The Neglected or Hidden study suggests that the number of Canadian employers who are willing to hire people with disabilities should be more than adequate to meet the availability of job seekers with disabilities. Similarly, the eagerness of respondents with disabilities to find work and to increase their practical experience and value to employers is clearly evident. The problem lies with bringing the parties together. In this article we touch on some innovative solutions to this employment and disability dilemma explored through the Neglected or Hidden research project. While partnerships between employers and service providers may still be in their infancy in Canada, they show a great deal of promise as newly formed relationships grow and prosper.

The EnableLink website ( provides much more in-depth information and analyses of the issues and opportunities that flow from our study. We encourage readers to visit the site and to consider the findings, conclusions and recommendations contained in the study reports.

Whether you are an employer, a community organization, or a job seeker with a disability, we have identified actions that you can take today, to reduce the level unemployment for people with disabilities in Canada.

(Alar Prost and David Redmond are Ottawa-based researchers and consultants who lead the Neglected or Hidden study.)

Neglected or Hidden presents a business case for a completely new approach to connecting employers and people with disabilities in Canada. It provides evidence of what works and what doesn’t work for job seekers with disabilities and the organizations that serve them. It also shares insights on how employers can become much more effective with their recruitment strategies that target people with disabilities.

This article is the first of several that will feature key findings from our study. For more in-depth information, we have posted both a detailed and a summary report online at Stay tuned over the coming months for further analysis of the findings, case examples of winning strategies and other helpful ideas that flow from the research.

The Canadian Abilities Foundation would like to thank Human Resources Development Canada for its financial support of the study. We are confident that our research will positively influence the level of employment facing people with disabilities across the country.

– Over one-third (34%) of respondents developed their disability during their adult working years, and of these, well over two-thirds (69%) were forced to make a career change following the onset of their disability. This includes more than four out of five (83%) of those with a high level of disability.
– Surprisingly, close to 60% of respondents who acquired either a mild disability or a moderate disability were forced to make a career change as a result of their disability.
– The high level of career change required by workers who acquired disabilities may help explain why close to 40% of respondents feel they need more formal education in order to improve their qualifications and job prospects.

– Even though one-half of all respondents have a minimum college diploma or a trade certificate, at least 61% feel that improving their work skills is the most important thing they can do to improve their employment situation.
– Three quarters of those working feel they are well qualified for the work they do; however, people with moderate to high-level disabilities are more likely to be overqualified for the work they are doing.

Job-related training is often identified as one of the best ways to reduce high unemployment. We asked people with disabilities to choose, from five training options, which they felt would be the most effective at reducing high unemployment among people with disabilities.
– Fifty-seven per cent felt that comprehensive training programs that are developed in collaboration with employers are either the most or second most effective.
– A rather telling 26% targeted awareness training for employers that is aimed at reducing discrimination and changing hiring practices as the most important factor for increased employment among people with disabilities.

Job Search
– While only 7% of employed respondents used the Internet to find their current job, 76% are at least somewhat likely to visit employer-specific websites in their future job searches.
– People with a mild disability were more likely to have found their job through a community organization providing employment services, whereas more of those with a high level of disability found their job through friends or personal contacts.


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