NIDMAR executive director challenges workplace leaders to address marginalization of people with disabilities

Zimmermann asks audience at Institute for Work & Health lecture to “change the terrible narrative” surrounding the integration of people with disabilities in the workforce

October 27, 2016—Wolfgang Zimmermann, executive director of the National Institute of Disability Management and Research (NIDMAR) in Port Alberni, B.C., is challenging workplace leaders and policy-makers to “change the terrible narrative” that continues to describe the reality of most people with disabilities when it comes to their participation in the labour force.

Zimmermann issued his challenge at the annual Alf Nachemson Memorial Lecture hosted by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH). The 2016 lecture, held October 14 in Toronto, celebrated Zimmermann and his contributions through NIDMAR, an organization he helped establish to reduce the human, social and economic costs of disability to workers, employers and society.

Speaking to an audience of professional and practice leaders from across Canada, Zimmermann acknowledged that, through the collective effort of champions, colleagues and friends, NIDMAR has been able to help advance the agenda for people with disabilities. For example, it was behind the development of the International Labour Organization (ILO) code of practice for managing disabilities in the workplace, the setting of disability management certification standards that have been adopted internationally, and the establishment of the Pacific Coast University for Workplace Health Sciences (PCU-WHS)—the only academic institution in the world dedicated to advancing education and research in the field of workplace health.

“But we have a helluva lot further to go,” Zimmermann told the audience.

He pointed out that more than one million people with disabilities in Canada are on social assistance, with an average monthly income of less than a $1,000 a month, and that fewer than half of Canadians with disabilities are employed, compared to 80 per cent of the general population. 

“I’m fortunate because I did not get pushed to the margins of society the way so many injured workers with disabilities are,” he said. Zimmermann was disabled by a workplace accident 40 years ago when he broke his back during his first week on the job as a tree faller.  

Zimmermann suggested those in the audience could make a difference to people with disabilities in any number of ways: by changing workplace cultures so they don’t stigmatize workers with disabilities, by broadening government programs that have been proven successful, by converting current research findings into concrete actions, and by conducting further research that goes beyond raising issues to finding answers.

In terms of changing workplace cultures to reduce the stigma around the hiring of people with disabilities, he suggested workplaces first ensure they have a successful return-to-work program in place. “If a workplace doesn’t think it’s important to bring back its own employees who acquire impairments, how do you expect it to change its culture?” Zimmermann said.

Zimmermann’s remarks followed presentations from three other speakers at the lecture who talked about the impact of NIDMAR’s work in changing outcomes for injured workers. The speakers were: Andrew King, former national leader for health, safety and the environment for the United Steelworkers in Canada, Joachim Breuer, director general of German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV), and the Honourable Wayne G. Wouters, PC, chancellor of PCU-WHS and former Clerk of the Privy Council in the federal public service.

You can watch videos of the four 2016 Nachemson speakers on IWH's YouTube channel.

You can also read an article on the lecture in the Fall 2016 issue of At Work. 

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About the Institute for Work & Health

IWH is an independent, not-for-profit research organization that aims to protect and improve the health of working people. Recognized as one of the top five occupational health and safety research centres in the world, the Institute provides practical and relevant findings on the prevention of work injury and disability to policy-makers, workers, employers, clinicians, and health, safety and disability management professionals. The annual Alf Nachemson Memorial Lecture was established by the Institute in 2002 to recognize the use of research evidence in policy-making in the field of work and health.