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Barrier-Free Employers
Practical Guide for Employment Accommodation for People with Disabilities

Source: Canadian Human Rights Commission


INTRODUCTION

Welcome to Barrier Free Employers, the Canadian Human Rights Commission's on-line guide to employment accommodation for people with disabilities.

When the time comes to recruit, hire and promote, people with disabilities are often overlooked. As an employer, you need to hire qualified people, and want to draw from the largest possible pool of candidates. This pool will include people with disabilities -- who comprise a productive sector of the workforce today -- but some of whom need accommodation on the job. More often than not, this accommodation can be provided at little or no cost.

This guide is intended to assist you as employers, managers and/or human resources officers. Its objective is to provide some facts and practical advice on employment accommodation, and to explain the steps that can be taken in order to facilitate the inclusion of employees with disabilities into your work force.

This site will give you the information you need in order to ensure that you can recruit from the widest pool of candidates to get the most qualified employees. Over and above this practical advice, the main message in this guide is the importance of free and open communication between employers and employees and job candidates, and an understanding of what accommodation means in practical terms.

The Duty to Accommodate

Some Guidelines

Barrier-Free Employers and Employment Equity

Examples of Employment Accommodations

Frequently Asked Questions

Some Descriptions

Links to Other Information and Resources

We have made some significant changes to this site, both to its format and to its content. In the interest of keeping the information on this site relevant, and the presentation fresh, we would like to hear your suggestions, so that Barrier-Free Employers can be as useful and as user-friendly as possible.

Please send your comments to (info.com@chrc-ccdp.ca). Let us know if you are an employer, a member of a disability group, or an interested individual. This will help us to hone the content of Barrier Free Employers to better meet your needs. Thank you for taking the time to share your suggestions.


DUTY TO ACCOMMODATE

The duty to accommodate refers to an employer's obligation to take appropriate steps to eliminate discrimination against employees, prospective employees or clients resulting from a rule, practice, or barrier that has -- or can have -- an adverse impact on individuals with disabilities. The duty to accommodate is written into s.2 and s.15 of the Canadian Human Rights Act; it stipulates that accommodation is required, short of undue hardship.

s.2:

"The purpose of this Act is to extend the laws in Canada to give effect ... to the principle that every individual should have an equal opportunity ... to make for himself or herself the life that he or she is able and wishes to have and to have their needs accommodated ... without being hindered in or prevented from doing so by discriminatory practices based on ... disability".

s.15(2):

"[In order to establish an exception to the duty to accommodation] ...it must be established that accommodation of the needs of an individual or a class of individuals affected would impose undue hardship on the person who would have to accommodate those needs, considering health, safety and cost."

Accommodation is not a courtesy -- it's the law. An employee who has been denied accommodation can file a complaint under the Act. Failure to provide accommodation short of undue hardship may be found to be discrimination on the basis of disability.


SOME GUIDELINES

As an employer, you want to be effective and efficient. To achieve optimal results in your organization, you want to reach as wide a pool of qualified candidates as possible. Traditional methods of recruiting, hiring and promotion will often limit your access to a diverse pool of skilled potential employees.

An employer's duty to accommodate is not limited to on-the-job performance, but extends from the initial job advertising on one end, to the exit interviews on the other. Here are some suggestions:

  • Make your job competitions inclusive and accessible. Use your existing recruitment channels, but post your employment opportunities in alternate formats. Also, circulate employment advertisements with disability organizations. CLICK HERE for a few links to some prominent organizations in Canada.

  • Job descriptions should be detailed, accurate and up to date, with essential and non-essential duties differentiated. Job redesign may be necessary; most job descriptions can be modified by looking at the expected outcomes of the job, and considering the needs of the applicant. Ensure that the postings are written in language that is easy to understand, are highly visible and easy to read, physically accessible and available in alternate formats.

  • During a formal job interview, conduct the same interview with someone with a disability as you would with anyone else. Unless the individual raises it him/herself, the job interview is not the appropriate time to discuss his/her disability. After a person has been given a conditional offer of employment, you can inquire about the accommodation necessary to achieve the expected outcomes of the job.

  • It's all in the language. When discussing accommodation with the applicant/employee, take care to use language that focuses not on the person's disability, but on the person's abilities. A simple example is to ask "Will you need accommodation to do this task?", rather than "Can you do this task?". Remember to address the same questions to all applicants, regardless of whether or not they have a disability.

  • Orientation. An individual with a disability does not require preferential treatment when starting a new job. There is no need to prepare your staff for his/her arrival any differently than you would for any other new employee.

  • Technical aids and workspace accommodation. In order to enhance an employee's abilities and to ensure that the workplace is barrier free, some assistive devices and/or workplace accommodation may be appropriate. CLICK HERE to refer to some common workspace accommodations.

  • Open communication. Take a proactive approach to accommodation. Effective management involves accommodation, whether this means providing technical devices, flexible work hours, or job sharing. Let your staff know that you are available at all times to discuss accommodation issues.

  • Exit interviews. When an employee with a disability leaves your workplace, it should not be because of his/her disability, nor should it be for lack of accommodation, or provision of inappropriate accommodation. Similar to the recruitment interview, discussions at the end of an employment term should be employment-focused.

Most forms of accommodation are relatively inexpensive. When accommodating an employee with a disability, it's important not to think along traditional lines; accommodation is just one part of the continuum of meeting the range of needs of your staff. Eight weeks' language training for a uniligual employee will probably cost more than purchasing assistive software for an equally qualified bilingual employee with a disability. Consider the cost of accommodation amortized over an employee's overall stay in your organization.


BARRIER-FREE EMPLOYERS AND EMPLOYMENT EQUITY

The Employment Equity Act is aimed at improving the representation of women, Aboriginal peoples, visible minorities and people with disabilities in the Canadian workforce. It places a positive obligation on the federal public service, federally regulated employers (with 100 or more employees) and federally contracted employers (with contracts over $200,000) to ensure that their workplaces and human resources practices do not exclude people from jobs for reasons other than qualifications and competence.

In November 1997, the CHRC began auditing the compliance of employers with the Employment Equity Act. As part of these audits the CHRC will ask employers to review their opportunities for people with disabilities, their representation in the workplace, and possible barriers to employment. Our audits are a way in which we hope to translate our new legislation into concrete action. We will report on the audit findings on a regular basis through the new CHRC magazine, Equality.

Fairness in employment is only going to happen when employers integrate employment equity principles throughout their policies and practices. It is the chief aim of our audits to ensure that this occurs. For more details on the audit process, please refer to the Framework for Compliance Audits Under the Employment Equity Act, and the accompanying Questionnaire.


EXAMPLES OF EMPLOYMENT ACCOMMODATION

Acquiring accessibility software, or constructing barrier-free workplaces to accommodate an employee or employees is a good investment all around. The actual monetary outlay is not significant compared to the dividend -- hiring a qualified person for the job. Besides, if your workplace facility is accessible, it ensures access not only for your employees, but also for a whole new clientele. Large-print documentation and hands-free telephones are examples of accommodation that will benefit not only workers but customers as well.

When considering someone for a position, the bulk of your investment is in common sense and open communication. In a recent Supreme court decision, Justice Sopinka said:

"[disability] as a prohibited ground [under the Canadian Human Rights Act] differs from the other enumerated grounds such as race or sex, because [it] means vastly different things depending upon the individual and the context."

In other words, there is no catch-all solution -- not all deaf people require sign language interpreters; not all blind people read braille; and not all people with physical disabilities use a wheelchair. Without proper communication and assessment of needs, effective employment accommodation cannot be achieved.

This section provides some examples of common office items or typical workplace situations where accommodation may be appropriate. An employer has a legal obligation to accommodate individuals with disabilities, short of undue hardship. These are various examples that will accommodate different individuals; not all of these are needed for everyone.

Telephones

  • Provide hands-free option to promote ease of use

  • Provide voice amplifiers to facilitate conversation

  • Provide TTY service, which provides voice-to-text / text-to-voice translation feature

  • Provide large button keypads, which are highly visible and easy to use

Computers

  • Provide document holders to make typing easier

  • Provide accessibility software for keyboard or mouse, to promote ease of access to computers

  • Provide large print software, which is highly visible and easy to read

  • Install screen reader software to ease access to electronic formats

Furniture

  • Arrange office furniture to compensate for right or left side dexterity; this also promotes ease of access and reach

  • Instal carpets or non-slip strips to promote ease of movement

  • Adjust the height of shared items such as photocopiers, printers & fax machines to promote ease of access and reach

Meetings/Interviews

  • Provide sign language interpreters to facilitate verbal and visual interaction and communication

  • Change the venue if necessary to promote ease of access -- certain venues are more accessible than others

Accessibility of common spaces

  • Widen hallways and entrances to workspaces and common areas if necessary to promote ease of access and movement

  • Install access ramps where necessary to promote ease of access and movement

  • Ensure that washroom facilities are accessible

Presentations

  • Use visual aids such as overhead projectors and presentation software to ensure that information is highly visible, easily accessible and easily understandable

  • Procure presentation software that is physically easy to use, and highly visual

  • Provide sign language interpreters to facilitate verbal and visual interaction and communication

Tests/examinations

  • Allow candidates extra time to complete, if required, to relieve some pressure

Job-related stress

  • Make provisions such as flexible working hours or working at home to relieve some pressure

Fire alarm

  • Install a visual signal to complement auditory alarm

Air quality

  • Install air filters to restrict or limit respiratory or skin irritants


FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

As an employer, when and why should I consider accommodation?

You'll find this guide useful if...

  • you are presently recruiting, and do not wish to exclude any potential candidates in finding the best person for the job.

  • you wish to promote the participation of people with disabilities in your workplace.

  • you wish to enhance the potential of an existing member of your staff with a disability or disabilities.

  • you have a staff member returning to his/her job following an accident or an illness, and you need tips on helping him/her to reintegrate into the workplace.

  • you wish to provide an accessible, safe and healthy working environment for everyone in your workplace.

Isn't there a high cost to integrating people with disabilities into my office?

No. The cost of accommodation is reasonably modest. According to the Job Accommodation Network, employers can accommodate most adaptation needs for $500 or less. These costs are even more reasonable when you consider them amortized over the entire duration of the employee's stay in your organization. The cost of adapting a workstation to the needs of a person with a disability can sometimes be high, but not prohibitively high -- accommodation is just one part of the continuum of meeting the needs of your employees.

My existing staff are already extremely busy; do I have sufficient resources to train people with disabilities?

Accommodation and training are separate issues (although some people may need training on accommodation equipment). Some flexibility and creativity is required in integrating people with disabilities into the workplace; however, it's a misconception that extra job-related training is always required for people with disabilities. Introducing a new and qualified colleague to a busy staff will only be a help and a morale-booster.

I'm not opposed to the idea of hiring people with disabilities, but what kind of work can they do and not do?

One of the most valuable management tools is the ability to focus on an individual's strengths and abilities, and not on his or her limitations. Like other employees, people with disabilities bring education, expertise and experience to your workplace; providing accommodation ensures that you and your organization benefit from that experience and expertise. Advertise your job openings in the disability community -- you may be surprised how many qualified people you'll find.

What are my legal obligations?

The Canadian Human Rights Act requires (as of June 30, 1998) employers to provide accommodation to a person with a disability, short of undue hardship. "Undue hardship" is judged based on factors of health, safety and cost (CHRA, s.15(2)).

What are the potential consequences if I fail to accommodate people with disabilities in my workplace?

Several precedent-setting cases have been heard by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, most recently Koeppel v. Department of National Defence (June 4, 1997) and Green v. Public Service Commission of Canada, Treasury Board and Human Resources Development Canada (June 26, 1998). In both cases, the tribunal found sufficient evidence of discrimination by failure to accommodate based on disability, and awarded compensation for lost wages and emotional hardship. In Green, the tribunal further ordered that, within a set amount of time, the respondents conduct a substantial review of their policies relating to people with disabilities.

What if I have provided accommodation for an employee, and the situation is still not working out?

Remember that employment accommodation is not always a one-time provision; individuals' needs can change over the course of their employment, as can the job itself. If an employee approaches you to tell you that he or she cannot perform well enough without further accommodation, this may be entirely legitimate. However, if an employee arrives continually late for work, this is a management issue, and not an accommodation requirement of flexible work hours. It is important to ensure that all employees understand what performance level is expected of them, and what workplace ethics are a part of your corporate culture. Accommodation is a means of enhancing an individual's abilities, and of ensuring that workplace performance standards are met, not compromised.

How do I introduce a new employee with a disability, and how do I prepare my staff for his or her arrival?

When someone with a disability joins your staff, you introduce him or her exactly the same way you would introduce anyone else. An individual's disability should not define him or her any more than gender, race or any other personal characteristic. Drawing attention to a new employee's disability should be avoided, since it focuses on an aspect of that employee which -- if properly accommodated -- is irrelevant to his or her function in your workplace.


SOME DESCRIPTIONS

The information contained in this section is intended as a quick, general reference to certain types of disabilities, and should not be regarded as a comprehensive resource, nor depended upon as a legal definition. Because this information is neither exhaustive nor individualized, it is important that you speak with the individual; accommodation arrangements are dictated by the demands of the job, and the employee's abilities. Not all deaf people require sign language interpreters; not all blind people read braille; and not all people with physical disabilities use a wheelchair. A team approach between you and the individual is the best approach you can take to the accommodation process; without proper communication, productive employment accommodation cannot be achieved.

MOBILITY IMPAIRMENTS

This category can generally be divided in two: those individuals who have sustained injuries or congenital irregularities, and those with progressive disorders. In virtually all cases, the person's intellectual abilities are unaffected. The needs of an employee with a mobility impairment may change over the course of his or her employment, so open communication and flexibility is essential.

BLIND/LOW VISION

Visual impairments can cover a wide spectrum, ranging from complete blindness to partial blindness. For some individuals, visual impairments are a natural part of aging. Open communication can avoid perpetuating common misconceptions associated with the legal definition of blindness.

DEAF/HARD OF HEARING

While some individuals are completely deaf, others have decreased or obstructed hearing. Some hearing impairments are associated with aging. Again, it is important to make sure that you maintain clear communication and confirm that communication has been understood.

SPEECH IMPAIRMENTS

An individual with a speech impairment has no difficulty understanding spoken and/or written language. In some cases, the person may use other means of communication that are equally effective, such as writing or sign language.

PSYCHIATRIC DISABILITIES

Psychiatric disabilities have various manifestations and consequences, depending on their type and severity. Some are the result of trauma such as physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Still others are the result of chemical imbalances which affect an individual's emotions or perception of reality, but not his or her intellect.

INTELLECTUAL DISABILITIES

Individuals with intellectual disabilities can improve their self-reliance if adequate support is provided to help them to develop social and professional skills. Most individuals with intellectual disabilities adapt well to the workplace on a social and professional level. Some individuals have case workers that can be consulted with respect to his or her skills and the level of direction and supervision required.

LEARNING DISABILITIES

Learning disabilities are neurological in origin, and may affect an individual's capacity to receive, process and communicate information in traditional formats. An individual with a learning disability will have varying degrees of success performing reading, writing and mathematical tasks. Appropriate accommodation can ensure that a person's learning disability will not restrict or limit his or her productivity in the workplace.

ENVIRONMENTAL SENSITIVITIES

Individuals with environmental sensitivities react to some foods, chemicals and environmental agents, singly or in combination. Environmental sensitivities include asthma and allergies, as well as Building Related Illnesses and Sick Building Syndrome.


LINKS TO OTHER INFORMATION AND RESOURCES






 



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Page last updated May 22, 2003