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Dealing with disabilities in the workplace

Neal Bird has worked for Air North for nearly four and a half years. As a cabin agent, he is part of the team responsible for grooming the fleet between flights. He is strong, outgoing and well suited for his job.

Neal Bird has worked for Air North for nearly four and a half years.

As a cabin agent, he is part of the team responsible for grooming the fleet between flights. He is strong, outgoing and well suited for his job.

The fact that he’s deaf is an afterthought.

“It was a challenge to share my strengths at first,” he admitted. “But (working with Air North) has given me the opportunity to show who I am and how I communicate.”

He noted many of his co-workers are eager to learn a bit of sign language.

And Bird believes he is no anomaly. “People sometimes think disabled people can’t do it. But we can, we need to show them that. We can never give up.”

As he talked, his wife, Lisa Rawlings Bird, translated his words from American Sign Language to English.

As the executive director of the Yukon Council on Disability, Lisa firmly believes her husband’s sentiments.

So, in 2009, her organization spearheaded the Yukon disability employment strategy, which aims to fundamentally change the way Yukon bosses think about hiring people with disabilities.

It started with a conference last spring, called Six Steps to Success. That brought together a group of international experts on disability employment to share their trials, tribulations and successes with Yukon’s disability activist community.

“It was a smashing success,” Lisa said.

And that created an infectious sense of optimism. “It wasn’t just a conference, it was a first step. It got people thinking about possibilities.”

One of the conference attendees was Stephen Jull, who works as a consultant for the council. “We’ve been at this for 20 years,” said Jull, speaking collectively about the disability employment movement.

“The feeling that came out of the conference is that we really need to start engaging employers more thoroughly,” he said.

Many local business leaders were invited, said Jull. Few showed up.

One leader who did attend was Rick Karp, president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce.

“I gave a presentation at the conference, and I looked around the room and I didn’t see business representation,” said Karp.

So he volunteered himself to liaise with the corporate world.

“My job is to bring the business perspective to the action plan,” said Karp. “There is the potential for (increased disabled participation) to resolve some of our labour-market issues.”

That’s especially the case with the Yukon’s recently booming mining industry.

“It is estimated that there is going to be $5.24 billion in mine construction between now and 2018,” he said. “We need employees.”

Rather than luring them from the South, Karp would rather see those jobs go to disabled residents of the Yukon. But, he said, attitudes need to change before that can happen.

“We need an education program for employers. We need to tell them ‘disability is not what you think it is’ and then give them a positive definition.”

Yukon employers with disabled staff often find them to be among their most hard-working, loyal and competent staff members, said Jull. But some employers have misgivings.

“There is an impression that hiring disabled might result in opening themselves up to human rights’ issues, which they don’t want to deal with.”

But accommodating disabilities is usually easier than expected, said Jull. That’s thanks, in part, to government funds.

Jull has found that bosses in rural Yukon are leading the way when it comes to progressive hiring practices.

“Businesses that have survived in rural Yukon have done so by being inclusive,” he said. “They often aren’t acting on any official policy, they are just supporting the development of their community.”

When asked what business people think about the idea of hiring more disabled people, Karp answered bluntly: “They don’t.”

It appears that local owners and managers are not actively against the idea of hiring more disabled people, but in the hectic day-to-day operation of a business the subject just doesn’t come up.

It became clear to Jull and Rawlings Bird that the best way to perk the interest of hiring employers is to provide them with an easy-to-use resource that gives them access to disabled job seekers and related information.

So they created a new website, called Disability Works, which recently went live.

It provides a forum for local businesses, disability agencies and Yukoners with disabilities to connect with each other easily.

“It’s a bit like an online dating service,” joked Rawlings Bird.

The website is a work in progress. “We want feedback from employers and everyone else on how we can make it work better,” she said. “It will be an evolutionary process.”

Success may take a while, said Jull.

“We don’t care if (the strategy) takes grip in the next six months. We’re going to be here in two years, five years, through many political cycles.”

Other agencies also have their own disability employment programs.

Stephanie Hammond, the executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Yukon, said her organization recently hired a training consultant to ensure that the mining and tourism sectors are accessible to everyone.

“Keeping workers in a mine can be a problem,” says Hammond, referencing the industry’s 25 per cent turnover rate.

But sensitivity to learning disabilities can lower that number, she said.

“Increased awareness would create a culture of inclusiveness, where people would feel comfortable being different,” she says.

One thing everyone can agree on is that progressive hiring policies have absolutely nothing to do with charity. Changing peoples’ attitudes make our entire society stronger, said Jull.

“Everyone exists on a spectrum of need,” he said. “We want to ensure that when anyone needs employment accommodation at some point in their life, it will be there for them.”