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Top 10 barriers to accessible employment in Canada


The pursuit of equitable and accessible employment opportunities has long been a cornerstone of Canadian social policy and inclusivity. However, despite efforts to bridge the gap, more action is needed.

According to the 2022 Labour Force Survey, people with disabilities have been consistently employed at lower rates than those without disabilities. Last year, the Canadian labour market witnessed a record-breaking one million job vacancies. Yet, opportunities did not appear to be equally accessible, as the employment rate for those with disabilities aged 16 to 64 stood at 65.1%, compared to the 80.1% employment rate of those without disabilities.

The 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability shed light on the stark reality of the community’s vulnerability:

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917, 700
Nearly 917,000, or 23% of working-age persons with disability, live in poverty.
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25% of persons with disabilities spend over 30% of their income on shelter costs.
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People with severe disabilities experience a poverty rate of 28%, while those with very severe disabilities face a higher poverty rate of 34%.

Several factors contribute to this persistent gap, including unmet workplace accommodation needs and conscious and unconscious bias. In this article, we delve deeper into the current state of accessible employment in Canada, examine the top 10 challenges individuals with disabilities face, and provide actionable steps organizations can take to address these issues.

Federal and provincial employment and accessibility standards

Canadian provinces like Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have taken significant steps in promoting accessibility. Newfoundland and Labrador introduced their accessibility legislation in 2021, while the Accessible British Columbia Act became law this year, requiring provincially regulated organizations to create detailed accessibility plans. There are also some essential federal pieces of legislations that organizations should be aware of to ensure compliance.

A significant milestone in Canada’s efforts to address the financial challenges faced by working-age persons with disabilities, the Canada Disability Benefit Act received royal assent on June 22, 2023. While the details are being worked out, it notably emphasizes poverty reduction and financial security. The core objective of the bill is to establish a monthly benefit like the Guaranteed Income Supplement, with the specific aim of mitigating a substantial income security gap that has left one in four adults with disabilities living below the poverty line.

Another pivotal legislative initiative is the Accessible Canada Act (ACA), which required large federally regulated organizations to publicly post their accessibility plans in 2022 and 2023, while federally regulated organizations with fewer than 100 employees must follow suit by June 1, 2024. It is designed to identify existing barriers to accessibility within their respective organizations and outline concrete actions to mitigate or eliminate these barriers.

The Accessibility Standards Canada’s (ASC) employment standard will become a legally binding requirement for federally regulated organizations once finalized. One of the many standards it will release in the next few years, it establishes a new benchmark for ensuring that persons with disabilities are properly supported and included in the workplace.

Top 10 barriers to accessible employment

In 2023, BDO’s Accessibility Consulting team reviewed and analyzed data from 75 accessibility plans released by federally regulated organizations in Canada. Below are some of the most common barriers to accessible employment that we uncovered – as well as strategies and actions your organization can take to overcome them.

  • The perceived stigma around disability disclosure discourages employees from self-identifying and seeking support when needed.
  • At most organizations, employees with disabilities report lower feelings of inclusion than other employee groups.

  • The lack of a designated leader or team responsible for accessibility initiatives leads to fragmented and under-resourced efforts.
  • Ensuring the representation of individuals with disabilities at the management level is crucial for fostering inclusive leadership.

  • Many organizations do not have systems in place to track data related to disability. This leads to assumptions that there are no persons with disabilities working at the organization. 
  • A lack of representation of persons with disabilities can create a workplace culture that does not consider the diverse needs of employees and fosters a sense of belonging.

  • The absence of official procedures for communicating accommodation availability results in missed opportunities and confusion for candidates and managers.
  • Using outdated or inappropriate language when discussing persons with disabilities creates barriers to inclusion and hinders effective communication.

  • Insufficient training and guidance across all employee levels results in limited awareness and understanding of accessibility.
  • The unavailability of accessible training materials and websites restricts access to learning.

  • Accessibility and disability inclusion are frequently overlooked in recruitment efforts, leading to the underrepresentation of individuals with disabilities.
  • The recruitment process poses various challenges for candidates with non-visible disabilities due to intimidating security screenings, complex applications with unclear language, and biases that lead to underrepresentation in the workforce.

The absence of adequate planning for accommodations and appropriate funding can cause persons with disabilities to be left without the necessary tools and support, sometimes for months or years. This can lead employees with disabilities to leave positions for which they would otherwise be well-suited.

  • Documentation-heavy accommodation processes requiring extensive medical reports and specialist opinions can discourage employees and managers from seeking or providing necessary accommodations.
  • Lengthy delays in implementing accommodation measures lead to frustration among employees with disabilities.

  • Inconsistencies in accommodation procedures across organizations result in confusion, inadequate support, and accessibility gaps. This is especially true as employees shift from one department to another within the same organization.

  • Outdated policies and processes perpetuate systemic barriers to accessibility.

Strategies for becoming disability-confident employers

Businesses need practical strategies beyond mere compliance with regulations. Our accessibility leaders suggest ways for organizations to foster an inclusive culture, create inclusive hiring practices and systems of promotion, build thoughtful workplace accommodation policies and practices, and provide ongoing support for employees with disabilities.

Create space within your organization to learn about the experiences and perceptions of persons with disabilities. There is no better way to understand your current state of accessibility than to ask the people most impacted by accessibility barriers.

Provide mandatory training on disability awareness, etiquette, and universal design principles for all employees.

Establish hiring targets for individuals with disabilities across all occupational groups and levels. Monitored and reported frequently by respected organizations.

Conduct an accessibility assessment of your organization and then create an implementation plan to make progressive improvements.

Equip hiring managers with resources and guidance to facilitate discussions on accessibility and accommodation with new hires.

Launch a campaign to encourage employees to disclose disabilities voluntarily without fear of repercussion.

Collaborate with institutions and communities representing individuals with disabilities during conferences and career fairs.

Create accessible resources for in-person and virtual employee orientation and centralize accessibility-related information on your organization’s intranet.

Establish an accessibility checklist for promotional hiring materials and review all legacy materials for accessibility.

Reaching out to an experienced team with in-depth knowledge of the accessibility landscape can help your organization recognize the barriers and navigate requirements.

Media discussions about workplace accessibility are frequently seen as superficial checkmarks for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. It is essential to shift this narrative by emphasizing the substantial economic contributions individuals with disabilities make to the workforce. Only then can we move beyond surface-level conversations and truly embrace inclusive employment practices.

How BDO can help

BDO Canada's Accessibility Consulting team, comprising leaders like Max Brault, who played a key role in the development of the ACA, has extensive experience in facilitating compliance for over 30 federal government departments, agencies, and federally regulated private sector entities. They also play an important role in raising public awareness through the media of the value that people with disabilities bring to the economy to embed accessibility within an organization’s culture rather than simply being a requirement. Our team assists organizations nationwide in elevating their disability confidence by offering comprehensive services such as holistic accessibility assessments, consultation facilitation, plan development, accessibility integration, strategy formulation, process development, and the establishment of policies promoting accessibility within organizations.

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