The numbers are striking: one in eight Canadians has a disability – that’s 3.6 million people. Achieving dignity and equality for persons with a disability is essential, not just to enhance lives, but to enhance our society in general.
Some employers have come a long way toward improving the lives of persons with a disability in a relatively short time. Employers talk about barrier-free cultures, which provide the environment for full participation of persons with disabilities in our workplaces. But more needs to be done.
Because dignity is not just about one aspect of an individual’s life, or about one aspect of society. We all need a more open mind to reverse social and attitudinal barriers. Personal care, social welfare and medical support can be key elements of meeting a disabled person’s immediate needs on the job.
The fact is, finding a job and creating a workplace with respect and equality is a two way street. Whether you’re a person looking for a job or you put yourself in the shoes of the employer who might want to hire you, both parties need a holistic approach that embraces the idea that equality involves the full realization of a person’s potential, with its accomplishments, triumphs, losses and passions. That’s what true equality will be based on.
We all know what it’s like to be excluded from something. It’s disrespectful and can be harmful on many levels. Simply providing equality or freedom from discrimination is indeed not enough, as many court cases have shown over the years. For example, an individual who uses a wheelchair may be able to apply for a job in the same way that an able-bodied person would; however, if there is no ramp and automatic doors where the interview is to take place then they are clearly disadvantaged.
To answer this apparent gap, legislatures and courts have developed the duty to accommodate. The concept is straightforward: every reasonable effort, short of undue hardship, must be made to accommodate a person with a disability.
In practical terms, what does accommodation look like? This is a particularly pertinent question when examining equality in the workplace. Learning how to approach equality issues begins with understanding that it goes on and to be aware of it. This is the first step.
Next, in order to develop workplaces that promote independence for the employee so that she or he avoids barriers and is more fully engaged we need to adopt an 'independent living lens'. That applies equally to disabled persons seeking a job. While it’s not the complete response, it may be a helpful guide in developing a welcoming environment for the disabled employee, and meeting duty-to-accommodate standards.
In addition to considering a legal duty for the employer to accommodate, it is also critical to understand the context on which this attitude should hinge. First, disabled employees are on the vanguard of reversing a legacy of discrimination and socioeconomic barriers. Second, a disability is a personal characteristic, and as such should not be a barrier to equal treatment. Third, any rule or policy must be premised upon promoting the dignity of the disabled employee. Fourth, a disabled employee has already signed an employment contract from which accommodation costs arise.
Finally, it is important to appreciate that disabled employees want the same as their able-bodied coworkers: respect and recognition for their efforts, collegiality in the workplace, and an absence of barriers that highlight differences rather than commonalities.
A policy of accommodation should appreciate the above factors. However, employers all too often do not include the disabled employee in the development of such policies. This limits choice, creates low morale, and is short-sighted. Not only do disabled employees have the right to earn a living like their able-bodied colleagues, they have much to contribute to their employers.
Accommodation in workplaces, social programs, housing, and the community in general, benefits us all in the long-run.
How to spot a workplace with dignity:
- The employer involves everyone in discussions to make changes in the workplace. Equality begins with understanding that discrimination exists and that it’s important to be aware of it.
- The employer makes dignity part of your workplace values and measures people against it.
- The employer encourages a respectful workplace. No one wants to be excluded. Speak up if you see behaviour or hear language that does not support dignity.
David W. Shannon is the author of Six Degrees of Dignity: Disability in an Age of Freedom. For the past 25 years, David has committed himself to policy development and legal advocacy for the protection of human rights and community integration for persons with a disability, working with governments, social agencies and the United Nations. As a person with quadriplegia he offers a personal, as well as a legal and academic perspective on the issues of equality and dignity for all human beings.