In a decade of researching and developing programs to advance social and economic inclusion, Marlena Flick says one of the current major barriers to disability inclusion in a changing workplace isn’t that businesses don’t see its importance, but that they often lack an understanding of existing research, best practices and strategies—and where these might break down despite best efforts.
One thing that’s missing, Flick explains, is a forum to understand what individual employers are actually doing to promote accessibility and to support businesses in taking leadership through training and resources. “We have a growing body of knowledge around what employees experience and what employers should do, but we have very little data on what employers have tried and what actually worked and why,” Flick says.
Employers therefore need to be better positioned to engage in peer-learning and knowledge sharing with policy and research bodies so that they can adopt a systems-focused approach that drives change across their business and workplace practices, rather than maintaining a transactional approach where disability inclusion is about “one-off” accommodations for employees who disclose a disability.
Flick, a Policy Lead at the Public Policy Forum (PPF), designed and led the Access Ability Project, which attempts to correct knowledge gaps among employers through peer support and shift employers to a more transformational approach that makes inclusion part of their mission and practice.
The Access Ability Project began by conducting and validating research that the PPF presented in the Access Ability Strategy Report. The report collects the input of major employers across Canada, employer-serving agencies, disability advocates, and policy makers on the challenge of making workplaces more equitable and accessible to workers with disabilities.
“My hope for this project is that we will continue to build this knowledge sharing, that people who experience disabilities will feel recognized in the resulting work, and that more employers will be inclined toward action,” Flick says.
The PPF will also launch an experiential learning program in May 2022 that will convene executive leaders across Canada with the goal of equipping participants with skills and strategies to take back to their organizations. The program will include peer practice groups where participants can work with each other as well as expert mentors and advisors to create their strategies.
To achieve the PPF’s vision of inclusion, Flick sees roles for a range of stakeholders. “Everyone has a role and collaboration is key,” Flick says. “A huge thing we saw in the research was the power of peer-to-peer learning.” Flick explains that this need informed the development of training programs based on the report, which will emphasize experiential learning, participant feedback, and ongoing dialogue with researchers and policy makers.
The inclusion of policy and research is essential for Flick, who says, “The policy environment shapes business action and social recognition around disability issues. For example, Accessible Standards Canada is developing standards for Crown Corporations and the public service, but this can help shift the landscape of expectations for all workplaces.”
Flick adds that the legislative environment at the federal and provincial level can also have a positive impact on the labour force for people with disabilities in ways that employers may not, such as through support for income stability. Keeping employers engaged with policy and finding ways to implement a variety of new practices and learnings into their day to day operations and organizational vision is critical.
The role of employers will be to use this information to continually assess and redesign their practices and share their learnings broadly. Flick says, “Collecting data, assessing accommodations, and especially using qualitative data to understand the experiences of workers to measure your organization’s disability confidence is important. These things were not measured before or during the pandemic in the way that other business goals are.”
Flick notes that employers can find support in adopting indicators for internal assessments from employer-serving agencies and disability advocates like the Ontario Disability Employment Network (ODEN), Ability New Brunswick, the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work (CCRW), and Ubuntu Works.
Gathering this information proactively can inform collaborative learning, but will also help organizations understand where they can make long-term investments in training staff and leadership around accessible practices and in adapting their operations. “Are your systems accessible for persons with different disabilities and backgrounds? Assess these parts of your business and continue to adapt them—treat them with the robustness of your other business goals,” Flick urges.
In deciding these investments, Flick notes, “The Nothing Without Us principle is essential. These practices will allow businesses to become more adaptable and successful but they can’t be achieved without people who have experience with disability being involved in the decision making and design process.”
The purpose of the transformational approach is to shift the onus away from workers with disabilities having to constantly advocate for themselves or relegating inclusion to single departments like human resources or equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). With employers able to constantly learn, meaningfully assess and adjust their approaches, and work together, Flick sees the foundation for an approach that makes disability inclusion present across all aspects of a business and allows employers to evolve and innovate to better serve their employees.
The full Access Ability Strategy Report and more background on the project is available from the Public Policy Forum.
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