Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to the committee today.
My name is Joe Dale. I am the executive director of the Ontario Disability Employment Network, and I am the founder of the Rotary at Work initiative here in Ontario which has been a catalyst for a number of employer engagement initiatives and strategies.
I have three key issues I'd like to speak about this morning. They are: ensuring effective services and supports for people who have a disability; employer engagement and support; and youth employment for kids with disabilities.
With respect to providing effective services and supports, people who have a disability can work, and they have the capacity to make a significant contribution to the workforce. This is a fundamental fact that we must understand and accept. Another fact is that we in the non-disabled community, both in government and in the disability profession, have only just begun to scratch the surface in our understanding of how to recognize this capacity, and how best to exploit it.
There is no tool or instrument that we have today that can effectively measure or assess capacity, or help us determine the employability of people who have a disability. Whenever we set out to measure employability or capacity to work, we invariably set the bar too high, discriminating against those who we deem too severely disabled to work.
This was made eminently clear to me recently, when I was fortunate enough to travel to Connecticut and visit a Walgreens distribution centre, where 47% of their employees have a disability. I would think a few of you would be familiar with the Walgreens story.
What was of particular interest to me was a statement made by executive vice-president Randy Lewis. Mr. Lewis recounted the early hires when they embarked on this journey of hiring people with disabilities. He talked about a young man with severe autism and significant behavioural problems, who was to be their first hire. Someone made the comment to Mr. Lewis that it seemed he was intentionally hiring people with significant challenges. Mr. Lewis responded, “Yes, we did, because we thought if we could get that first difficult one right, the rest would be easy. What we learned though, is that we didn't go low enough, because the capacity of people is far greater than anything we had ever imagined.”
I think that was a profound statement, coming from a business operator.
Indeed, we believe today that perhaps the most effective measure of employability is more properly gauged by each individual's motivation to work, as opposed to their skills and skill sets.
Having said that, it's important that the services and supports that each person needs are available, and available in a way that make sense. We need to consider ease of access to employment services and supports, that it makes sense to the individual job seeker, and when they show up at the door looking for help, they can get that help as soon as possible and in a seamless way. Nothing takes the motivation out of someone faster than being bounced around from service to service, process to process, assessment to assessment, and so on. If the job seeker comes looking for help and they are sent to one door for an assessment or an eligibility determination, to a different door to get an employment plan, to another to get the case manager they didn't even know they needed, and so forth, not only have we lengthened the process and made it extremely costly to deliver, but that person is at a very high risk of losing their initial motivation, and are much less likely to follow through on the end goal of getting a job. Even those who endure it all often end up back at the original door they first went to with a request for help to find a job.
Services should be available using a wraparound process. There is little, if any, value in having silos of service with multiple service agencies, each providing a different component of the service. Employment agencies should be entrusted with providing as much of the support as is needed to assist people to meet their career and job goals. If, through the career exploration process, it is determined that a competency-based assessment or specialized training is required, that employment agency should broker or case manage the services on behalf of the job seeker in order to ensure continuity.
Job seekers with disabilities need access to the full spectrum of services and supports, pre- and post-employment. Those with limited education, training, and work experience often need pre-employment supports. These include employment-related life skills, an understanding of workplace culture and responsibilities, resumé preparation and interview skills, and so forth. This should be based on time-limited, curriculum-based programs or training modules. These programs also serve to help the employment agency assess motivation, help determine the skills, abilities, and aspirations of the job seeker, and give a solid understanding of the supports needed to ensure a successful job match.
Supports don't stop at the point of job placement. Employers also need support, and it is the post-placement support that has the greatest impact on job retention and career growth. Employers need to see the employment agency as a specialist or as a disability consultant. As one employer once told me, “I'm an expert at making coffee, not understanding disability.”
Workplaces evolve and jobs change. Often, retraining and even revisiting and revising accommodations are necessary. The preventive maintenance that comes from good customer service with the business owner can often prevent terminations, nipping problems in the bud before they become much more for the business to contend with.
With respect to employer engagement, through the Rotary at Work initiative we've learned two very important lessons. First, we must make a solid business case for hiring people who have a disability. We can no longer soft-sell on the basis of it being the right thing to do, or by appealing to charitable and feel-good notions. Second, we've learned that the peer-to-peer method of delivering that message works best. People respect and listen to their peers. In the broadest sense, this is evident when we use the business-to-business approach. Business operators speaking to other business operators in the same language and understanding each other's motivation of profitability gets traction.
On another level, however, the peer-to-peer method can be used within employment sectors, as evidenced by the mayor's challenge, where we have the mayor of Sarnia, who has challenged his colleagues and peers in other municipalities to hire people with disabilities in the municipal workforce; or the police chief's challenge, where London's police chief, Brad Duncan, has put out the challenge to other police chiefs across the province. These challenges are followed up with in-person contact and support peer to peer.
The peer-to-peer method is also transferrable on a more micro level. We've used the peer-to-peer approach now with several Canadian corporations to develop strategies within their own rank and file, where we have delivered strategies where department managers are talking to their counterparts and peers in other divisions, departments, and branches not only about why we should include people with disabilities in the workplace but also about how to successfully on-board people with disabilities.
There is still a lot of work to be done to engage employers in many segments of business and industry, but we are now seeing the tide turning on this issue. For many businesses the question is changing from why hire to how do I hire. In this regard we would recommend establishing a business-driven association of experienced employers along the lines of the U.K. forum on abilities. Such an entity could carry on the important educational work that has begun to make the business case for hiring people with disabilities, while adding to its capacity peer support for advice and consultation services to assist those who are having difficulty with implementing recruitment strategies and on-boarding employees from the disability sector.
Wage subsidies as a strategy to gain employment opportunities for people with disabilities is a hotly contested issue across the country. The Ontario Disability Employment Network and its members do not support wage subsidies as an employment strategy. We have seen far too many abuses where there was no intention to retain the employee beyond the term of the subsidy.
Wage subsidies also undermine the value proposition that we are creating about hiring people with a disability. It also sets people up to often be treated differently from their co-workers.
Employers who understand the value that people with disabilities bring to the workplace rarely, if ever, access wage subsidies. Smart employers tell us that when they pay wages, they are in fact investing in that employee, and by investing, they are more vested in achieving a successful outcome. When it's free or subsidized, the relationship is not the same.