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Do Human Resource Grads Need More on Disabilities?

How do people with disabilities fit into corporate culture?

Businesses that pay attention to equity and diversity, building teams that reflect the rich multi-faceted nature of the global village we inhabit, operate from positions of strength.

How do you tap into that talent and how do you keep it?

All those questions eventually land on the shoulders of the men and women who study human resources. Diversity is an important part of human resources courses at universities and community colleges, but it is usually questions of ethnicity and culture that predominate. When it comes to disability, how much exposure to the issues do students really get? Enough for them to feel comfortable when they're faced with wheelchairs or hearing aids or white canes in the hiring process?

Kim Wrigley-Archer found herself asking all those questions. A graduate of Ryerson University's School of Disability Studies, Wrigley-Archer also has spent many years in the workforce. Although she has low vision and is hard of hearing, she says her employers focused on her abilities, making her own workplace experience generally positive. But she knows that's not always the case.

People with disabilities are far less likely to be employed than their able-bodied counterparts, no matter that they have the talents and the credentials. A report card on inclusion released this month by the Canadian Association for Community Living (cacl.ca) shows only 25 percent of working-age adults who have an intellectual disability are employed.

"We know that it's possible for people to live well," says Keith Powell, executive director of Community Living Ontario. "But in order to belong and contribute, people require support, healthy relationships, employment and other opportunities, as well as accepting and inclusive attitudes by others."

Wrigley-Archer cites numerous studies revealing disturbing facts on disability and unemployment. Among them, Canadian Abilities Foundation research shows people with disabilities fare poorly in the workforce even at times when employers say they have trouble finding trained workers to fill vacant positions.

And a study by the CNIB (formerly Canadian National Institute for the Blind) found that negative attitudes toward prospective employees with disabilities may be kept under wraps, but are still very much a factor in the outcome of the game on an uneven playing field.

All this suggests that more attention needs to be paid to education about disability issues, particularly for Human (Resources), Wrigley-Archer says. To that end, she's looking at how human resources graduates feel about what they were taught about disability issues. Do they think their training prepared them for responding appropriately to situations involving people with disabilities? How did that training influence their views on disabilities? What information about disabilities do they think should be included in education programs?

The study is funded by the Canadian Centre on Disability Studies and is also supported by Citizens With Disabilities-Ontario (CWDO). The aim is to explore strategies and develop innovative approaches to the issue.

If you graduated from college or university in the past 10 years and have been working in human resources in the Greater Toronto Area for at least three years, Wrigley-Archer would like to know what you think. Participants will remain anonymous. All identifying information (including personal and company names) will be removed from any reports and kept strictly confidential.

For more information, email kim.disabilityresearch@gmail.com.

Reprinted from the Toronto Star, December 12, 2009, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.