Disability advocate, accessibility expert, author and speaker Tracy Schmitt — Unstoppable Tracy — tells a story from her childhood that she feels aptly illustrates the kinds of obstacles people with disabilities regularly face. Born a four-way amputee, Schmitt wore prosthetic legs as a child. When it came time for her to start kindergarten, the local school didn’t want to take her because they believed she wouldn’t be able to put her shoes on by herself at recess. Schmitt, who grew up in a close community, desperately wanted to go to school with her friends from her neighbourhood. Her mother convinced the principal to let her attend on a trial basis for a week. She distinctly remembers her mother emphatically telling her that it was really important that all the children were included and that everyone made it outside for recess. She didn’t know why her mother was being so intense but took it very seriously and promised she would make sure everyone was outside.
The first day of kindergarten, the principal went outside at recess to see how she did. He waited five minutes, 10 minutes — he waited until the bell rang, but Schmitt never made it outside. After school, the principle and her mother went to speak with the teacher to find out what had happened. The teacher said that Schmitt had had no problem putting her own shoes on — she had spent the entire recess trying to tie all of her friends’ shoes, because of course none of the other children could tie their shoelaces because they were all in kindergarten.
Schmitt believes this story is pertinent in illustrating the kinds of challenges she continues to face in the workplace. She tells another similar story of being passed over for a coaching opportunity by a new manager. A seasoned educator who personally taught many of the other candidates, Schmitt was the most qualified person for the position. When she approached the new manager to ask why she wasn’t selected, the woman told her that there were a lot of flipcharts in the course and whoever took on the position needed to be able to flip the flipcharts.
“She was a nice-enough lady and well enough intended. She didn’t mean to be exclusive … she just couldn’t imagine how as a four-way amputee I could flip a flipchart,” Schmitt says. Never mind that it was a fairly trivial objection, Schmitt in fact has no problem flipping a flipchart, and quickly set the woman straight by demonstrating her ability to do so.
There is nothing wrong with asking a person with a disability what he or she can and can’t do, but ask, don’t assume, says Schmitt.
“I have a really hard time getting a job,” she adds. One problem she often encounters is that, as a person with a disability, organizations are more than willing to hire her to meet equity employment standards in a frontline job, at a very basic entry level, but with years of managerial experience and an MBA, she is grossly overqualified for those frontline positions. “They don’t speak out loud about the concerns that they may have, but I don’t get hired for the managerial positions. And it’s only when I have not disclosed that I have a disability that I even get in the door with an interview.”
This is a common problem people with disabilities face. In 2011, according to Statistics Canada data, the employment rate of Canadians aged 25 to 64 with disabilities was 49%, compared with 79% for people without a disability.
Schmitt believes organizations are missing out on an untapped talent pool. Beyond complying with the law and demonstrating common decency, there are real advantages to creating a more accessible workplace that is inclusive of people with disabilities.
Creative problem solving
In the rapidly changing workplace, creative problem-solving is an increasingly important hiring quality. Being born with or having acquired a disability makes problem-solving and finding creative workarounds a part of everyday life, says Schmitt. “Disrupt the norm” is a popular phrase these days. Schmitt talks about how people are continuously being encouraged to disrupt the norm — that “if you wake up at eight, wake up at five; or if you drive the highway, maybe drive the side roads … but when you have a disability, every day you are disrupting the norm.
“Every day you’re figuring out workarounds, because although we are very lucky that things are a hundred times better today than they were 40 years ago or 30 years ago, or even 10 or five years ago, there is still a lot to be accomplished. And so just by virtue of having an accessible workplace, you’re going to be inviting more folks with more creative ideas,” because, she says, becoming a creative problem-solver just intuitively starts to happen when you have a disability.
Improvements that benefit everyone
Schmitt also points out how increased accessibility can lead to improvements for everyone, citing the example of closed captions. While intended for people with hearing loss, most of us use captioning from time to time, for example when not wanting to be noisy and disturb others while watching a video. “It’s just useful at times for everyone. And it isn’t really about hearing loss anymore — it’s just about noise protection,” she says.
Eliminating tripping hazards in the workplace is another example of an accessibility measure that is generally useful, and large print can be beneficial to anyone who has forgotten their reading glasses.
An aging population
As the population ages, and as people continue to work past the retirement age, accessibility in the workplace is becoming even more of a hot-button issue. In the Canadian Survey on Disability conducted by Statistics Canada in 2012, 33.2% of adults over the age 65 report having a disability. Additionally, Schmitt points out that those statistics are based on self-identification, and that many older people do not consider themselves to have a disability.
“I can live on my own, cook for myself, dress myself, work on my own, drive … and I identify as having a disability. But my Nana has meals-on-wheels, nurses … PSWs [personal support workers] to help her get ready in the morning, and she does not self-identify as having a disability… despite all the services she uses.” Invisible disabilities, such as mental illness or learning disabilities, are also often under-reported.
According to a 2013 Fifth Quadrant Analytics report, “Sustainable Value Creation Through Disability,” due to the demographics of an aging population of baby boomers, the global population of people with disabilities is now an estimated 1.3 billion — a market roughly the size of China. Add to that number the friends and families of people with disabilities, and the image you portray to clients and/or customers becomes crucial. Increasingly, organizations that are seen to value and support those with disabilities will have an edge over the competition.
Creating a more inclusive working environment
When it comes to attracting and supporting employees with disabilities, Schmitt says it’s important to go beyond the minimum legal requirements. “Nothing about us without us,” is the mantra Schmitt suggests organizations go by — meaning don’t make decisions on behalf of people with disabilities without their input.
As an example, she cites two of her pet peeves: toilet paper dispensers that are too far away from the toilet; and the voice recognition software Dragon NaturallySpeaking. You almost always have to lean forward to reach large, industrial toilet paper dispensers, which is a significant issue for people in wheelchairs but also just annoying for everyone. Dragon NaturallySpeaking takes up a massive amount of memory and isn’t compatible with other commonly used office software, like Outlook 2013.
“Just because you had an Ontario Building Code, able-bodied construction guy come through and give [the bathroom] a checkmark, it doesn’t mean that it will delight, and it doesn’t mean that it will actually meet the needs of your employees, and it doesn’t mean that it will void you of some kind of lawsuit because somebody’s fallen off the toilet because they couldn’t reach the toilet paper,” Schmitt matter-of-factly states. She suggests that rather on relying on a contractor or IT person to tell you what people with disabilities need, solicit the help of someone like her — a person with a disability who is qualified to offer advice. “Nothing about us without us,” she reiterates — good advice to go by.
Learn more about Unstoppable Tracy at www.unstoppabletracy.com.