New social innovation lab launched to build employer disability confidence

IWH and McMaster joint initiative will draw on partnerships, collaborations to find and develop innovative solutions to improve work outcomes for persons with disabilities

Published: June 5, 2023

The team behind a new social innovation lab named Inclusive Design for Employment Access (IDEA) has a call out for employers, labour unions, disability community organizations, service providers and policy-makers across the country.

It’s on a mission to build employer confidence in recruiting, hiring, onboarding, mentoring and supporting the advancement of workers with disabilities. And it is seeking to partner with organizations across Canada and across all sectors to identify, develop, pilot and scale up innovative solutions that can help overcome labour-market barriers for persons with disabilities.

Collaboration and co-design are the core principles behind the initiative, said Dr. Emile Tompa, senior scientist at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) and executive director of the IDEA initiative, speaking at the IDEA launch held in May at the Ontario Bar Association (OBA). We’re encouraging everyone in the work disability policy arena to be part of the movement and work with us to make transformational change in employment outcomes for persons with disabilities, he added.

We’re inviting employer, union, disability community, service provider and government representatives to join us in our efforts to identify priority areas needing change and promising practices to address them, said Dr. Rebecca Gewurtz, associate professor at McMaster University and director of IDEA. We also need their involvement in co-designing solutions, testing them in the field and, of course, getting them implemented across Canada wherever they may be of value to advancing employment opportunities for persons with disabilities.

Funded by the federal government’s New Frontiers in Research Fund Transformation Stream, IDEA is a six-year initiative that’s focused on skilling up workplaces—in contrast to conventional approaches of skilling up persons with disabilities to get them job-ready.

Read about the initiative

In video remarks at the launch, the Honourable Carla Qualtrough said today’s labour crunch provides an added impetus to strive for greater inclusion. We can use the opportunity provided by this economic imperative to change minds and attitudes and to build disability confidence within our workplaces, said Qualtrough, federal Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion. Not doing so doesn’t just deny persons with disabilities the opportunity to participate in society and bring our full selves to the workplace; it also has serious economic consequences.

Perrin Beatty, President, Canadian Chamber of Commerce, spoke of the IDEA team’s track record of bringing together not only the Chamber and the Canadian Labour Congress, but also partnering with governments, disability organizations and researchers to identify promising inclusion initiatives and scale them up for broader implementation. He added that IDEA’s evidence-based approach is crucial to increasing the number of disability confident workplaces. When business leaders see that an innovative approach to the employment of people with disabilities has worked in another workplace or in another sector, it is more likely that they’ll also be prepared to adopt it, added Beatty.

Many at the event shared their vision of broad and sweeping societal change, while others spoke of the power of support at the level of individual employment relationships. In her introductory remarks, OBA president Kelly McDermott spoke of the importance of workplace support when she was dealing with her own health challenges. I was burned out, depressed and it was untenable. And yet I endured, not because I’m particularly resilient but because I had support to see me through—most significantly, education and mental health and peer support that was safe and judgment free.

Dr. Matt Freeman, assistant clinical professor at McMaster University, spoke of the importance of wrap-around services in enabling him to advance in an academic career while living with a physical disability. Having accessible buses in the community and accessible bathrooms on every floor of his office building may seem like insignificant details to people without disabilities; but to him, it means he can fully participate in work activities, including last-minute meetings. These are the kinds of issues people with disabilities face when they have been given employment. It isn’t just the job; it’s everything around the job and how it will influence employment.

Another speaker with lived experience, Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai, underlined the importance of a culture change that needs to take place alongside the development of toolkits, checklists and resources that help mediate the relationship between employers and workers with disabilities. Those are important, said Sukhai, Vice President, Research & International Affairs and Chief Accessibility Officer at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). But so too are the policies, practices and systems of the workplace, the attitudes and biases of our co-workers and managers and our sense of internalized ableism. These, too, must be addressed in our work. Addressing them collectively will ensure a truly inclusive workplace for us all.

Work is underway across the five incubator hubs that comprise IDEA, which are now gathering field knowledge on existing innovations and synthesizing evidence from various sources. The hubs, which serve as entry points for knowledge-to-practice enquiries, are focused on the following key areas: workplace systems and partnerships; employment support systems; transitions to work and career development; inclusive environmental design; and disruptive technologies and the future of work.

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