Inclusive Design for Employment Access (IDEA): An initiative set to break down barriers, creating a more inclusive labour market

New Frontiers in Research Fund | Published: 2022-04-12 10:00 AM (eastern)

For two years, the world’s economy has been hit with blow after blow. Coronavirus shutdowns along with forest fires and mass floods have produced major backlogs in supply chains worldwide. While consumer demand is increasing, industries continue to find it hard to keep up. Companies are scrambling to find workers in the face of crushing labour shortages. An entire global economy is looking to hire.

“We’re in a moment that should have come a long time ago,” says Krista Carr, Inclusion Canada executive vice-president. “The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed employment to places where it hasn’t been before. More people are working from home. We have found more ways to use technology and do things virtually. There are lots of opportunities for people who are eager to work like everyone else.”

Carr has spent her nearly 30-year career providing support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her life’s focus has been on creating inclusive workplaces, a movement that has been an uphill battle. She says now is the time for change.

“We’re getting to a place where employers are starting to see that hiring people with disabilities is good for business,” says Carr.

Research shows employment rates are 20% lower for Canadians with disabilities, compared to the general population.

Carr is part of a team of global experts, many of whom identify as persons with disabilities, that is spearheading an initiative called Inclusive Design for Employment Access (IDEA). The project, awarded $9 million through the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) 2020 Transformation stream, plans to influence the redesign of the global labour market. The team will spend the next six years creating stronger, more diverse labour markets in Canada and around the world by giving employers the hiring tools they need to build a more inclusive workforce.

“We’re working very closely with disability communities, based on the principle of ‘nothing about us, without us.’ We’ve got all the stakeholders at the table, working together on a level playing field to identify priority issues, offering up promising solutions, improving those ideas and field-testing them, and then scaling them up in the workplace,” says Emile Tompa, IDEA's nominated principal investigator; an associate professor in the Department of Economics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario; director of the Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy; and senior scientist at the Institute for Work & Health. “We want our work to have an impact on employment rates for people with disabilities by the end of our initiative.”

The employment rates for people with disabilities have, until now, been nothing short of appalling. Research shows employment rates are 20% lower for Canadians with disabilities, compared to the general population. For those facing increased or more complex barriers, that difference is closer to 50%. The lack of income means people with disabilities rely heavily on social assistance programs to survive, forcing many to live in poverty. Tompa, considered a world-leading labour and health economist, says that has a heavy burden on Canada’s economy.

“When you think of all the different facets of our society where people with disabilities are excluded, a conservative estimate is a loss of 17% of Canada’s gross domestic product [GDP]. The output and productivity losses to industry we estimate to be about 3.2% of GDP,” says Tompa.

Mahadeo Sukhai, director of research and chief inclusion and accessibility officer at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, says the crux of the economic impact is the reality that people with mental, physical, sensory and developmental disabilities face tremendous discrimination and stereotypes in the world of employment. This discrimination, Sukhai says, arises from attitudes much of society has, because these beliefs have been deeply ingrained in society for so long.

“We have to upskill employers and focus on building inclusivity in the workplace. When we do that, we create an entry point for people with diverse backgrounds.”

“There’s the assumption that people can’t work or we can’t do as good of a job as someone else who doesn’t have a disability, even if we both have the same university or college degree,” says Sukhai, who is a leading researcher and accessibility professional, and the world's first biomedical scientist who was born blind. “Employers think, ‘How do I pay for accommodations? How do I know this person can do the job? What happens if it doesn’t work out?’”

What makes IDEA so transformative is that, for the first time in this field, the focus will be not on how to upskill people with disabilities for the workforce, but, instead, on how to upskill employers to create a more inclusive workplace. It will encourage employers to make accommodations for mental health issues, chronic illnesses, substance use disorders, physical ailments and intellectual disabilities, customizing the job for the worker. It’s a job market transformation that Rebecca Gewurtz, project co-principal investigator, refers to as demand-side capacity building.

“For so long, people with disabilities had a dearth of employment opportunities because employers didn’t have the tools to help them succeed. The IDEA initiative is based on the idea of creating a toolbox,” says Gewurtz, who is an occupational therapist and associate professor in the School of Rehabilitation Science at McMaster University. “We have to upskill employers and focus on building inclusivity in the workplace. When we do that, we create an entry point for people with diverse backgrounds. That is demand-side capacity building.”

IDEA will have international reach, with co-investigators in research centres in the United States, Australia and Japan. It promises to bring together industry and labour leaders, persons with disabilities, disability organizations and researchers in what is being called a “social innovation laboratory.” The team will use the principles of co-design to develop solutions that will help employers identify and eliminate barriers for people with disabilities, and help them find skilled workers in their field.

“We are trying to create a new normal of inclusive workplaces where, it becomes the obvious thing to do. That this is a company’s competitive edge—”

“This is big,” says Alec Farquhar, a collaborator on the project as well as a workers’ compensation specialist and labour lawyer. “Everyone around this table has a big vision, but we haven’t had the right platform until now.”

Farquhar has years of expertise in the inclusive workplace movement. He says changing government policy is hard, but changing workplace priorities is achievable.

“You’re facing a mindset—in construction, for example—that jobs are only viable for 100%-able-bodied people; which, by the way, means that if you’ve been a construction worker and are injured on the job or your body starts wearing out, that you can’t work anymore. That’s just not true.”

“We’re trying to provide a strong practical basis for employers to feel ‘I can handle this. I can fully include persons with disabilities. And if I need help, I know where to get it.’ We want the inclusive workplace to become ordinary,” adds Farquhar.

For Canada’s economy to survive and thrive, Tompa says inclusion must be part of the industry change. Our IDEA, he says, will position Canada as a leader on the global stage. “We are trying to create a new normal of inclusive workplaces, where it becomes the obvious thing to do. That this is a company’s competitive edge—that being inclusive makes them better, more productive and more profitable than other organizations.”

“If you ask me what I want to see at the end of this six-year project,” adds Carr, “I would like to see more people with disabilities with jobs. I’d like to walk into any workplace on any corner of any street in this country and know that that workplace is reflective of Canadian society in all of its wonderful diversities. That’s the kind of Canada we want and the kind of workplaces we want.”

Date modified: