Abstract

David Onley is the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. As the first Lieutenant Governor with a visible disability, Onley has committed to using his position to bring attention to issues that affect Ontario's 1.8 million people with disabilities, including, for example, accessibility and obstacles to employment and housing. As such, he has been a significant and effective leader in Ontario's efforts to raise the visibility and to reduce the stigma of disability by speaking regularly and consistently about a positive and more accurate rendering: that disabled workers are assets and contribute significantly to their workplaces, as well as to the larger communities of which they are a part. In this interview Onley reflects on his own workplace experiences, research that would add to the argument for greater inclusivity, and the challenges that lie ahead for those that would make Ontario's workplaces more accessible.

David Onley took the oath of office as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario on September 5, 2007. As the province's first Lieutenant Governor with a visible disability, Onley committed to using his position to bring attention to issues that affect Ontario's 1.8 million people with disabilities, including, for example, accessibility and obstacles to employment and housing. As such, he has been a significant and effective leader in Ontario's efforts to raise the visibility and to reduce the stigma of disability by speaking regularly and consistently about a positive and more accurate rendering: that disabled workers are assets and contribute significantly to their workplaces, as well as to the larger communities of which they are a part. He has supported many organizations and events including the Centre for Families, Work and Well-Being's first conference on Work and Disability which took place in the fall of 2011.

Throughout this interview, Onley's focus is on the importance of leadership and on inclusivity. He is clearly concerned that Canadians do not appear to fully understand what a valuable human resource they have in this community, which is particularly evident as he speaks of developing the business case for the employment of people with disabilities. While he is direct and articulate regarding obvious misconceptions about people with disabilities, what is a mystery to Onley is why this population sees high levels of unemployment persist year after year. For Onley the answer comes back to the important issue of leadership, illustrated by Canada's choice of national heroes Rick Hansen and Terry Fox, as well as the leadership exhibited by many in the entertainment sector. He concludes by emphasizing the role of business leaders in making the case for the employment of disabled workers to their own business communities. By supporting these leaders and other stakeholders in promoting the capacity of disabled workers, society has the best opportunity to achieve re-conceptualization, replacing images of the liability of employing disabled workers, with an appreciation of the assets and benefits of their full participation in the workplace.

C.P. Your Honour has a unique perspective on this issue given your current role. You have a visible disability and all of the life experience that entails, you advocate of behalf of people with disabilities, and you have a significant role in government which may bring with it some ability to influence from time to time.

D.O. It's an accurate description of my position. Not as well known because I've not really spoken about it…on a couple of occasions, but generally I have not. By virtue of being Lieutenant Governor, protocol demands that I not be involved in discussions of public policy as it pertains to partisan party positions. When someone calls up on a phone-in show, or sends a letter and says, "Well, we think monthly payments from the Ontario Disability Support Program should be changed to this and we want you to start talking about it," I can't do that because that is government policy. The opposition parties have their own policies on that particular issue, so I can't talk to the specifics. I can, however, talk to the general concepts and to the general overarching issues.

When I became Lieutenant Governor, one of the first things I had to determine was what social agenda I was going to follow as Lieutenant Governor. By virtue of the fact that I have a disability, it was clear in my mind from the outset that it was going to be accessibility related. But how do I express this to the general public? How do I talk to the people of Ontario and talk with the people of Ontario on an issue that affects 16 percent of the population, some 1.8 million people in the province of Ontario, without it being political?

C.P. And how do you advocate and not be political?

D.O. I follow the modeling of the Queen herself as well as recent Governor's General, but especially the Queen, in terms of doing symbolic representations to draw attention to issues related to accessibility. And then to speak in an overarching way, in a general philosophical way that still cause people to think. The Queen was really the first public figure who brought disabled people into the public upon becoming Queen in 1952 in terms of walkabouts. She was the one who began the process. Now, her father actually initiated it during the wars; he visited wounded veterans who were kept indoors, kept behind, shut away and then she changed that herself to include not just wounded veterans but anyone who had a disability.

A couple of years ago, when Prince Edward visited Toronto, I talked to him about that. He said that when he was a small boy, he asked his mother, "Why do we do this? Why, when we do walkabouts, have people in wheelchairs and crutches? Why are they in the front row?" And the Queen said to him, "It's because I want people to see that people with disabilities are people too." Clearly, right from the very beginning of her reign, she in a symbolic way was making that clear. So I've looked for symbolic things to do. The symbolism that I settled on was role modeling.

Now my previous career was in television, for 22½ years at CityTV in Toronto and briefly prior to that on CTV on the Canada AM program. But my entry into media was actually in radio, and it was into radio because I saw no role models on television. That's where I really wanted to be. I knew from the time I was in high school that I wanted to be a TV personality. In fact, I even knew when I was 11 years old that I wanted to be a TV personality, but there were no role models.

So I decided that when I became Lieutenant Governor, I would attempt to do two things: to attempt to be a role model, just by virtue of doing the job, but then to look for those opportunities where the sheer presence, not only of the Lieutenant Governor but of someone with a disability doing something unique or different that the public would see, would draw attention to that reality that we are people too. So, when for instance, about 3½ months after I became Lieutenant Governor when the opportunity came to flip the coin at the Grey Cup game in Toronto, at centre field with all of Canada watching, I took that opportunity. You can be absolutely certain that that was the first time somebody in an electric scooter went to centre field to flip a coin!

And so there was that role modeling if you will, that symbolism. But the overarching notion was in my Installation Address, where I shared my definition of accessibility as that which enables people to achieve their full potential. I came up with that definition because I wanted to have a political, non-partisan definition that people could latch on to. In creating that definition, I thought, "Okay, this is my start point. This allows me to talk about what addressing the issue of disability is all about." No matter how you describe it, whatever the disability, whether it's a physical disability such as I have, having come down with Polio at the age of three in 1953, or whether it's some internal condition, I thought, "I've got to come up with something that draws attention to this" and so, hence, the definition.

I get surprised by someone who will come and tell me, or they'll send me a letter and it will be two or three years after an event, and they'll say that there was something that I did in that particular event that encouraged them to do something, and I'll just be flabbergasted. I got a letter like that from someone recently, and I had to really dig back through the files because I honestly couldn't remember. There was something in my role that just resonated with this person who has a disability and prompted them to pursue, in this case, an academic course of action. That's very humbling when you hear something like that. We're all role models to the person that we motivate. If it affects our children, that's wonderful; if it's a relative, that's wonderful; and if it's a complete stranger, well, that's a bonus.

C.P. In previous decades up to and including the recent past, Ontario and from my understanding, Canada as a whole has not paid enough attention to ensuring implementation of accommodation for people with disabilities. Recently this seems to have shifted, the most obvious evidence of which is the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Barriers, however, do continue to exist. According to Jakobsen's (2009) research, "The the barriers are caused by a poor match between personal capacity and work requirements, as well as by their managers' and colleagues' attitudes." What do you think about that statement?

D.O. I tend to disagree with it, frankly. I don't doubt for a moment that there are instances like that and I have heard that from different people, but I can honestly say in the bulk of my work experience of 22½ years at CityTV, a number of years in radio broadcasting at CFRB, a year and a bit at the now defunct CKO radio network, I never encountered anything that resembled that. I think I encountered some people who were indifferent to what difficulties I might be experiencing, but the vast majority of people were not indifferent. If I had need of assistance, it was generously offered. I think that came about primarily because of my own attitude towards the work environment, towards the employees. I had many, many friends in all the places that I worked, but also because of the job that I did. I don't mean that in a sense of just being one of the gang. I mean I was involved with the process.

I disagree with it to that extent. But if the quote was in reference to getting the job in the first place, I would agree with it quite significantly because I think, right now, today, in Ontario and in Canada, the crisis of unemployment for people with disabilities is specifically because of a mismatch of manager's and employer's attitudes. Their attitudes are not based on fact. They're based on bias, and I would even say, to a certain extent, there has to be a certain percentage that is based on a kind of bigotry towards people with disabilities. Now those are harsh terms, but I think they're valid because I just know far too many highly qualified people who are educated, are talented, they've completed their post-secondary education, gone on to do graduate degrees and then just hit a brick wall when it comes to employment.

In my studies and research…I've been reading studies by Deloitte, surveys by Compass Research, examples provided by Richard Donovan on the Return on Disability Group in the United States…the myths include the belief that absenteeism rates will be higher, that job retention rate will be lower, that Workman's Compensation claims will be higher, that the cost of adapting the workplace…"Oh, gee, I'm going to have to install an elevator." Well, no, the person is blind. Blind people can walk up stairs. That's an actual real-world example given to me by a member of one of the Vision Support Groups, of one of their clients being turned down for a job because they thought they'd have to install an elevator. And they went back and told the employer, "No, no, you don't have to install an elevator. This person knows how to get around…notice that they're carrying a white cane, not a walker." You can laugh at it, except that it's so tragic.

The flip side of it, and we know this from the wonderful example of Walgreen's in the United States and from corporations here in Canada, is that in fact, the opposite is true. Absenteeism is lower. The job retention rate is higher. The Workman's Comp claims are usually not just lower, but much lower. In fact, disabled workers are much more productive and, therefore, have a greater benefit to the corporation. And we haven't yet mentioned the one additional thing, and that is that it enables the company to reflect the culture, in a better way, which means that they're seen in a better light by the market that they're trying to serve.

So it really is a matter of how does one penetrate these myths. Myths have a certain role to play in terms of childhood, but when it comes to enhancing the bottom line, it's unfortunate because it's blocking people from being hired. I personally experienced that myself, I had an Honours BA in Political Science at the University of Toronto, an 'A' average overall. I did a year of law school as a highly qualified and trained person and, you know, by the time I was two years away from University, I was on welfare because I couldn't get work.

It's part of my profile that I wrote a best-selling novel on the space program which then led directly to me being hired by Moses Znaimer at CityTV. That initial time at CityTV in turn led to 22½ years of steady employment at a generous salary. But we have to go back to that start point. Why did I write the novel? I wrote the novel because I couldn't get a job. I had no alternative. I saw it as one last shot, and beyond that, I didn't know what I was going to do. I was 27 and borderline depressed because I thought, "What am I going to do?" And what it comes down to was the various job interviews I went for. I just knew I was dead coming through the door. It wasn't going to happen.

And so it really does come down to employer's attitudes, and to that extent I could agree that the barriers are caused by a poor match between personal capacity and the employer's attitudes.

C.P. Thanks for that. I just want to pick up on a point you made earlier. You suggested a number of barriers. Is fear on the list as well?

D.O. In fact, it's very interesting because fear works both ways. There is fear on the part of the employer that okay, what do I do if I have to fire this person. I'm going to be on the front page of the Toronto Star…it's just going right through their mind… In fact, Andria Spindel, the head of Ontario March of Dimes, told me once about a fellow that did a seminar at these different accessibility conferences called, "How to Fire a Disabled Person." And he said, "Now that you've all gathered here in the room, I have to tell you it was a type-o. It was supposed to be How to Hire a Disabled Person, but I left it because I knew if I said hire, you wouldn't come. If I said fire, I knew I'd be hitting what you're actually afraid of." And then he addressed the issue.

How do you fire a disabled person? Well, the same way you fire an able-bodied person. And that is, you have the manager bring them in and tell them they're not meeting the following standards, and here's how we want you to remedy the situation, and here's the time period, and we'll have another discussion later on. That's easy to say because that's the strict approach on how to handle it. But it is there in the back of people's minds.

C.P. Is there a role for policy and legislation in removing those barriers? Because ultimately you are talking about emotion, and how do you legislate against human emotion?

D.O. That's a really good question. If I can back it up for a moment. You know, it just doesn't work. Okay, so if you can't legislate against, how do you legislate for?

Right now, the traditional list of minority groups that are included in initiatives related to diversity are generically described as women, minorities, aboriginals, LGBT and disabled and some others you can throw in at any time. The good news is, that reasonable progress has been made in most of these categories in terms of the workplace. But it's not been made in terms of people with disabilities. It starts right there with the definition. All those people who are women, who are minorities, who are ethnic, who are aboriginals, who are LGBT, and may, in fact, also be disabled.

One of the aboriginal chiefs here in the Province of Ontario talked to me about what was the great hidden problem in the City of Toronto, as it pertained to unemployment for aboriginal people. And I said, "What's that?" And he said, "Disabled, aboriginal people." I think that's part of the problem. I think that in getting to the essence of the problem, we've created this definition, we've created these categories, and say, "This is our definition of diversity." As long as you've got some women, as long as you've got representatives from the LGBT community, as long as you have an ethnic person, as long as you have an aboriginal person, well gee, you know, we've got five out of six and we're diverse.

It's just not accurate enough. This was driven home to me by a report that I discovered about two years ago as I was looking on the internet for anything to do with disability and religion. I had been asked to speak at the Ontario Prayer Breakfast. That's an annual event that different dignitaries get invited to speak at, and members of multiple faith groups come together and have this breakfast. I was looking for research, and I came across a report by The Standing Conference of the Bishops of America, which is called The SCOBA Report on Disability. I did a little bit further digging and found that the Bishops of America were actually a part of the Russian Orthodox Church of the United States of America. And I thought, "Now what do these people have to say about accessibility or disability in North America?"

This 2000 word essay had a lot of very profound thoughts, not the least of which was a definition of the difference between handicap and disabled. Being born in 1950, and then having various surgeries in the late 50s and more surgeries in the early 60s, when I needed long-term rehabilitation in the early part of my grade 8 year in 1963, they sent me to the best facility in Toronto at the time, the best in Canada: The Ontario Crippled Children's Centre. Well, it was wonderful, great therapy and all the rest. But we couldn't use that term today. The terms have changed. But this difficulty is that "disability" and "handicapped" have become just interchangeable. What the authors pointed out was that they're very, very different, that "disability" is that limiting factor that is a result of an accident or a disease or a condition, the onset of age. All of that combined is disability. And yet people on a daily basis, without being national heros necessarily, although some of them had become national heros, have overcome their disabilities and have gone on to achieve enormously significant things.

Here in our own Canadian culture, isn't it ironic that two of our great national heros are Rick Hansen and Terry Fox. I mean, it's quite remarkable. As a nation, two of our major icons are disabled people. I'm just not aware of any other nation at all whose heros include disabled people.

The 2009 SCOBA report points out that "handicap" is something very different. A handicap is something that is imposed by other people, that is a barrier to their participation. The irony is that handicap, as it pertains to disabled people, is the only time the word is used as a negative. And what is it? Well, a handicap results in an unequal playing field. And we've not understood that. Disability can be very, very significant, especially if it's severe. What's stopping the person from achieving what he or she is capable of achieving is usually a handicap which is imposed by other people, an employer who chooses to handicap that disabled person by not seeing him for what he could very well be as a potential employee.

The other thing that they included in the SCOBA report that I find is almost equally profound…they kind of go together as book ends…is the difference between the words "inclusion" and "membership." The notion is that we use the term inclusion aggressively and on an ongoing basis, but there still is an implication of it being forced at you, being mandated. You're being instructed to do so to meet criteria. Like going back to your childhood where your mother would read the riot act and say, "Well you can go, but you have to include your little brother." You know, there's a carrot and there's a stick. But usually there's the stick before there's the carrot in contrast to the way the Bishop's talked about membership as being something that is a term of acceptance. It's an invitation to be a part of the team, a part of the process.

My experience at CityTV was that I was a member of CityTV and a member of the CityTV team. That came from the top man, Moses Znaimer who actually had seen me perform as an MC at various functions, then invited me to be the weatherman at CityTV which was the start point of my career. Then upon hiring me, or extending the offer to me, he asked me specifically about my disability. Did I think that that was going to affect my performance on the job and I said…the first thought that went through my mind was, well I'm going to enjoy working for this guy because he's hired me and now he's asking me about the disability…and I said, "Well, I don't know. I don't think so, but if it starts to or if it does, you'll be the first person that I'll tell," and he said fine, that's fine with him, and that was it.

After 22½ years, I left on enormously positive terms. There were two occasions during the time that I worked there where my condition did deteriorate in terms of energy, in terms of my ability to stand for periods of time. I went in and talked to my immediate manager who said, "Okay, we'll make these changes," but that came from the top, the top on down, so there's this notion of being a member. To back that all up to the original question area, if not the question itself, this is part of the problem. It's the terminology that we're using. I think we have to get right down to the basics of the terms that we use, to understand what they really are, to understand that No, if you have a step, if you've got a single step that's stopping people from getting into your store, you are handicapping Ontario's disabled population.

Let's put that on the front page of the newspaper. Well, no, no, we don't want to be on the front page of the newspaper, but that's where it could be. You know, so-and-so's store handicaps 1.8 million Ontarians. We don't see it that way. We just see it as "Gee, it's going to cost me 30,000 dollars to install an elevator." No, no, we don't want the elevator installed. Just get rid of the step.

C.P. So it's about leadership, isn't it?

D.O. Yes, if you can't legislate against emotion, you need leaders who somehow move the agenda forward, and I think the best way to move that forward, and it's what I've been talking about, you know, during my term in office, is the notion of the business case for hiring people with disabilities.

To go over the previous territory briefly, it's not that there's anything morally or ethnically superior about disabled people. It's just that by virtue of your situation, if you have overcome the significant aspects of your disability, you're probably a Type A person. You are definitely a problem-solver. My wife tells me this all the time; she says, "Your mind never stops working. You just keep on solving problems." And, well I am. I am because I've had to. I've have to trouble shoot everything. I had to. Everywhere we would go, everywhere we would think of going, I would have to first do this mental construction of how I was going to get from point A to point B and what interruptions might be along the way. Invariably, most disabled people who have been able to overcome these barriers are enormously good problem-solvers.

When I talked to the Premier about this very issue about two months ago, in terms of people having a higher job retention rate and a lower absenteeism rate, he said, "Well, how much of this is based on fear? Like fear that you're going to lose the job?" And I said, "A lot of it!" It was always a driving factor in my years at CityTV. Notwithstanding the generosity of management, I always went there on the basis of my two year contract is now expiring. I have no idea as to whether or not I'm going to be retained. Now in retrospect, I should have thought of it a little bit more pragmatically and realized that no, I'm doing a good job and they're getting some brownie points here by having an on-air personality with a disability. But fear is a legitimate factor, and other studies have demonstrated this. The person will work harder, will work longer, and will be a more dedicated employee, because they don't know when the next opportunity is going to come along or if it's going to come along. That's the reality that we have to deal with.

How do you get employers to understand this? Well, I think you just keep on presenting the facts to them. And the facts are that the higher the percentage of disabled employees that you have, the higher your productivity is going to be. It's counterintuitive but the facts are the facts. And, you know, when we think about who drives the agenda…

C.P. It's got to come from other business people, doesn't it?

D.O. Yes.

C.P. Your leadership in advocating for people with disabilities is well known and documented, and includes networking for the benefit of related organizations. This aspect of follow through is often missing in advocates, largely because talk is much easier than action. So although we have already talked a little bit about your experiences and thoughts regarding advocating, is there anything you want to add?

D.O. I think talk is cheap. In terms of the advocacy, there have been so many different groups, representing so many diverse interests for so long. One of the advantages that we do have here in the Province of Ontario with the ODA Accessibility Act that was passed in 2005 is that we're about approaching the one-third way point of its implementation period of 20 years, which was probably wise, because in some ways it is a generational issue. But one of the great things the Act did was to bring together the reality of municipalities having accessibility committees so that they were drawn from the community, so that you didn't have the individual interest groups fighting with each other. So much takes place in the background, at the municipal level.

C.P. We also talked about some of the stakeholders that might be involved in leveraging change, and we talked about business people needing to participate, and we talked about your role as an advocate. There would be other people who would serve as advocates. What other stakeholders might be involved?

D.O. Well, interestingly enough, I think some of the most dramatic stakeholders are from the arts. It is to me a complete irony, and I don't understand why, but it is a fact that notwithstanding the barriers to employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and notwithstanding the negative attitudes, and notwithstanding the high unemployment rate in the artistic and musical community, in terms of the general public's acceptance of artists with disabilities, there's not an issue.

I find it amazing that we don't go to see Adrian Anantawan because we just want to take pity on this poor young man who doesn't have a right hand. No, we're actually quite amazed at his artistic ability in terms of playing the violin. By the way, that is remarkable how he plays the violin with a prosthetic device replacing his right hand to hold the bow, all the more remarkable. We go to see him perform. Similarly Itzhak Perlman. We don't go to see Itzhak Perlman because tonight is pity the guy with the Polio. No, it's just not that at all. He's a world-class performer. You can go down the line, whether it's the late Jeff Healey, whether it's Jose Feliciano, there's a range of artist with different disabilities, and in our society, we buy their records or go and see them perform. There's total acceptance. There's not an Oh, gee, I feel discomfort. I'm really uncomfortable watching this person perform.

Justin Hines, the singer, sings from his electric wheelchair. The Australian opera singer, Hewitt, is a quadriplegic in an electric wheelchair. I mean, it's just stunning. I've been at concerts where there's just been these long standing ovations for this guy. It's amazing what he does. And total acceptance. That to me is like it's a start point.

Similarly, the Paralympic athletes, where the ratings have been consistently going up over the last number of years in terms of Paralympic TV coverage and ParaPan Am Game coverage. It will be interesting to see whether the London Paralympic Games continue this pattern in increased audience where people are watching, or here in Canada for the Sports Networks Broadcasting the men's sledge hockey games. They're not doing it to be nice. They're doing it because there's an audience to watch it, which means that people have accepted the sport, and they've accepted the performer as people that they want to see as a part of their entertainment sports package or their entertainment singing package or acting package. So, in a sense, I think it demonstrates to me at least that the society at large is far ahead of both government and business in terms of accepting people with disabilities. I don't think that you can reach any other conclusion. And, you know, it's a curiosity, but there it is, and maybe it's deserving of further research. It probably is. Because why is this? Why is there such an acceptance of this?

And yet, there are still stereotypes, and they are stereotypes that drive me crazy. Why in heaven's name did the people who put Toy Story 3 together have to make the evil character, the stuffed bear, disabled? The stuffed bear was disabled! And on top of that, the stuffed bear, having been given many, many opportunities to "repent" before the end of the story was mean, nasty and bitter right to the end. It was almost Shakespearean. I watched it because I like Pixar, you know, the technology of computer generated videos and programs or movies like that, I liked the original Toy Story. It was very, very clever and had ground-breaking animation. But Toy Story 3 was profoundly disappointing. Why did they do that? There was no reason to have the character portrayed as disabled.

Increasingly on television…I salute Jerry Bruckheimer and the multiple CSI and other programs that he produces…he regularly has ongoing characters in the dramas, either as continuing characters or guest characters or background characters, who just happen to have a disability. It's just part of their deal. That's a part of their lives. My wife and I, a few years ago, were watching one of the CSI shows and we watched the two investigators sit on a park bench and just brainstorm over what they were going to Do next in about a 30 second scene, and I hit the pause button and I said to her, "Did you see that?" And she said, "See what?" And I said, "Look in the background. Look at the hotdog vendor" and I said, "Just watch the scene go by and having nothing to do with the scene in terms of the plot or the story. There's the hotdog vendor in a wheelchair serving hotdogs." And I thought, Yes, good for him. It shows acceptance within the artistic community who think farther ahead than business or government.

C.P. So how do we facilitate that general transfer of attitude? Is there a role for people with disabilities in that facilitation? How can people with disabilities contribute to change? We have this example of this great 'sector,' the entertainment sector, which seems to have gotten it right, and the rest of us who are labouring under all kinds of false ideas about who these people are.

D.O. It's multileveled. We press forward with the Accessibility Act. If there are improvements to be made in the Act, then those changes hopefully get lobbied for. The different pressure groups continue to keep up the pressure. The advocates, such as myself, and other people continue to speak out. Ultimately, I think it's about a business case for it and in terms of the marketplace which is, you know, one of the key focuses here, that the message just has to keep on going out to the business community. Tough economic times; desperate need to make more money, okay, follow these models, follow these rules, hire these people and you will have higher productivity, you will make more money. Sooner or later, the message has to sink in, and so it's just an ongoing process. I think we are much, I know we are much, much further ahead than we were 30 years ago. There's no comparison to twenty years ago, no comparison to ten years ago…There has been a big improvement, but there's still a way to go.

C.P. What is the role of research in this context?

D.O. Well, I think what is needed desperately now is someone to pull together a very significant paper on the unemployment issue because, unfortunately, depending on the definitions used, the statistics for unemployment for disabled people are really all over the place. You can go from lows of 15 percent to highs of 50 percent and, well, you can't say, "Let's just saw it off in the middle and that will be accurate." There's no question, though, that several hundred thousand people are on ODSP in the Province of Ontario. We can start right there and say, "They are unemployed."

There are really only two groups of people in our society. Those who are taxpayers and those who are dependent on tax money to keep body and soul together. Those people are on support payments. In one sense, that's a good thing because it means that long ago, we decided we were not just going to allow people to starve to death on the side of the street and beg for pittances to stay alive. On the basis of disability we would provide support. Well, that's the good side of it, but the negative side is there's still this massive unemployment and there are just far too many people who want to work, are trained to work, are capable of working and can't get jobs.

The studies I mentioned earlier, The Compass Survey and The Deloitte White Paper on Disability, and Deloitte's own separate studies, have shown it's mostly based on myths and misperceptions. I think what would be really effective would be research that pulled this all together and really gave a real number as to what the unemployment rate was. I am comfortable in my speeches having read various surveys that an unemployment rate of 25 percent of the adult disabled population is not unreasonable at all. And that does not include the people who have given up looking, or who are underemployed in part-time jobs, or who are self-employed, earning wages that are much below what they should be making. There's a reason to do it and that is, it is to the benefit of everyone. In effect, we need to create new taxpayers. You know, the more taxpayers that we can bring into the marketplace, bring into our society who, by the way, also happen to have a disability, the better.

I've heard one study that was done by the Rotary at Work Group, with Joe Dale saying that, assuming that the person made just minimum wage, that for every 100 people, it would be a million dollar benefit to the society. I don't know that that number is accurate, but as a concept, you take a look at the 12 to 14,000 dollars that a person gets on a disability stipend, gets out of the tax revenue, and compare that to an income of 25,000 dollars with a portion of that going back as taxes anyway. What's the swing on that? Well, the swing is some 20,000 dollars per person, per year, times 40 years, times 400,000 people. That's a lot of money!

What does that do for the healthcare system? What does that do for mental health? That's a scenario we haven't had the opportunity to touch on. Maybe another time, but I mean just the whole area of mental health is critical when it comes to coping with depression because of disability, because that's a big factor. It's a reality. It's something that I've wrestled with. You know, as a friend of mine who is a doctor said, "If you don't get depressed now and then think about what your situation is, maybe you don't understand what your situation is!" But work defines who we are to a very real extent. If you have no reason to get up in the morning, it's hard to get up in the morning.

C.P. So we need a good solid paper on unemployment in terms of people with disabilities. I also heard you say, and correct me if I'm wrong, that we need some work on putting together the business case?

D.O. We need some solid numbers on that as well. Data. Richard Donovan of the Fifth Quadrant Group has done a survey of the top 100 companies in the United States with the highest percentage of their workforce having a disability. It doesn't matter the field. It doesn't matter what they do. Just the top 100 companies. For the last five years, four out of the five years, those companies have outperformed the S&P 500. And why? Well, it goes back to what we're talking about: higher job retention, lower absenteeism, higher productivity. Do the math.

When you see a corporation like Walgreens in the United States with their mass distribution centres, over 25 percent of the workforce is people with disabilities, and they see their productivity go through the roof in a distribution centre where you would think that's the last place you'd be having disabled people. But no, they just accommodated and they made changes and it's a very inspiring story. I mean, one of the funny ones is actually about the different work stations. They made them at the correct height so that people in wheelchairs of the general adult size would be able to easily move in and under and not be hitting any cables or things like that. And so that's how they set it up, and one of the first things that happened after they started to hire a certain number of people who were in wheelchairs was that able-bodied employees said, "Well, why don't I have a chair? I want a chair for my workstation. I don't want to stand all day." So they went and bought a bunch of chairs. You know, it's a little bit simplistic in one sense, but it's not. It's showing an enhanced productivity, so if a chair makes you better at your job, get chairs for everyone.

So that would be a second area and then I would suggest the third area. I think the Richard Donovan model, all the research that he's been doing, is just staggering. He's the one that pointed out that it's not enough to say we have 15 odd percent of our population with a disability. We have to look at how many immediate family members are there? And what does that represent as a percentage of the population? The answer is over half when you take in the immediate family members who are affected. They're going to go out for dinner and it's an inaccessible restaurant. The result is that the restaurant has not lost one person; they've lost four or five or six.

Another area is the history of the entertainment world. It's not just that there are people with disabilities in the world of entertainment. It's that the general public accepts them, and accepts them without discussion.

C.P. And we have not talked yet about the impact of aging!

D.O. Ultimately I think that the resolution in terms of a physically accessible environment and a culturally accessible one is going to be the aging boomers. We who are boomers are going to be the majority until we're all gone, and if that encourages the employment of people with disabilities as well, then so be it.

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Copyright (c) 2012 Carolyn Pletsch



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