By Kevin McNichol
The global pandemic transformed the workplace in profound ways, prompting an unprecedented shift toward remote work and bringing mental well-being into sharper focus. As we navigate the post-lockdown landscape, we’re at a crossroads in defining the future of employment. At the heart of this transformation lies an opportunity to reshape diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, yet the critical matter of disability employment frequently remains an afterthought.
As businesses and employees adapt to this ‘new normal’ which brings with it a mix of remote, hybrid and flexible work arrangements, the question of who truly benefits from these sweeping changes looms large. It’s essential to scrutinize these transformations through the lens of DEI, especially since new work patterns have significant implications for inclusivity. This is a moment to address gaps, including the underrepresentation of persons with disabilities in the workforce.
For employees and job seekers with disabilities, remote work has been transformative, breaking down long-standing barriers such as daily commuting. In the United States, for instance, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in October 2022 that employment among persons with disabilities aged 16 to 64 increased by approximately 500,000 jobs compared to the previous year. Stats Can reports that employment of persons with disabilities rose by 10 per cent from 2017 to 2022 while employment for those without disabilities during the same period rose by 1.8 per cent. However, considering that only 55 per cent of workers with disabilities participate in the workforce compared to 84 per cent participation by Canadians without a disability, it is obvious that persons with disabilities continue to be underrepresented in Canada’s workplaces.
While these statistics signify progress in levelling the employment field for persons with disabilities, it’s important to recognize that this new, digitally focused work environment has its own hurdles. In a world dominated by virtual collaborations, ensuring digital accessibility — from screen reader-compatible websites to subtitled webinars — becomes imperative.
But accessibility isn’t only about physical and technology-based accommodations; the pandemic has heightened awareness around invisible disabilities, such as chronic illnesses and neurological differences. Elevated levels of stress and anxiety during the pandemic have also underscored the importance of mental health in workplace inclusion.
True diversity hiring goes beyond race and gender, encompassing an array of abilities. The dialogue must shift from a quota-centric approach to one that values the unique perspectives and abilities that disabled employees bring to the table.
From an economic standpoint, the rationale for embracing disability employment is compelling. In Alberta, where the job vacancy rate has fallen to 4.1 per cent from its pandemic high of 4.9 per cent, it continues to remain higher than the pre-pandemic rate of 2.4 per cent. The untapped talent pool among individuals with disabilities is substantial and overlooking these demographic risks missing out on not only the economic opportunities but corporate social accountability as well. In Canada, the 6.2 million persons with disabilities, along with their families and friends, constitute more than a third of the population, with an estimated disposable income exceeding $311 billion.
As businesses recover and evolve, the opportunity to reshape the DEI narrative in Canada has never been timelier. By tailoring products and services to meet the needs of persons with disabilities, companies not only cultivate brand loyalty but also drive disability-related capital spending.
For organizations seeking to craft a robust post-pandemic recovery strategy, the integration of comprehensive DEI measures, with disability employment as a central focus, is non-negotiable. This isn’t merely an afterthought; it’s a crucial component of a truly inclusive workplace. Given the wealth of resources available — from training modules to employment service agencies like Prospect that offer free training and support for hiring and retaining employees with disabilities — there’s simply no justification for overlooking this vital aspect of inclusion.
The post-pandemic landscape offers not just challenges but also unique opportunities for genuine progress. As we shape the future of employment, we must ensure disability inclusion isn’t just a side note but a central chapter in the evolving narrative. This isn’t just a moral obligation; it’s a strategic advantage that companies can’t afford to ignore.
Kevin McNichol is CEO of Prospect Human Services.