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A Wheelchair Doesn't Make an Employee Perfect

“I just told off a man in a wheelchair and it felt so good."

The speaker is Dr. Naomi Bennett, director of Pacific Wellcare, one of the fictional medical clinics depicted on the ABC television series Private Practice. The man in the wheelchair is Dr. Gabriel Fife, a "brilliant but arrogant" new colleague with whom she disagrees.

Bennett, it transpires, is uncomfortable being her usually assertive self with someone who is disabled. Like most able-bodied people, she suddenly feels trapped by the spectre of political correctness--until the man in the wheelchair goes too far and she erupts.

This particular hour of television contained many serious issues about society's attitude toward people with disabilities. But Bennett's obvious discomfort in speaking her mind happened to coincide with the release of a survey that shows many Ontario bosses feel exactly the same way she does. Which is one of the things that make it even tougher for qualified, competent disabled people to find jobs.

The survey, conducted by Compas Inc. for JOIN, the Job Opportunity Information Network, found one of the major reasons human resources executives say they are reluctant to hire is because "it's harder to dismiss an underperforming person with a disability than one without a disability."

Some day soon we have to get over this stereotype kid-glove approach, just one more way of sidelining people who are in fact likely to make very good employees.

That's part of the purpose of JOIN, a network of community agencies helping people with disabilities to find jobs and employers to recruit qualified disabled workers. Among other things, JOIN believes people with disabilities have the same right as anyone else to be hired and dismissed, if necessary.

The survey was funded by the Ministry of Community and Social Services as part of the Ontario Disability Support Program. Compas interviewed 110 human resources executives from public, private, not-for-profit and for-profit companies. The results "help us address concerns and educate" potential employers, says JOIN Toronto's vice-chair, Jenna Erickson.

In addition to the 36 percent of executives who said they felt uncomfortable reprimanding someone with a disability, 24 percent said they worried about higher absentee rates, 21 percent were concerned about expenses related to modifying the workplace and 16 percent believed it would take more effort to train new recruits and they might not perform as well.

On the plus side, 53 percent believed employees with a disability "try harder" and bring "fresh perspectives" to the job, while 46 percent said they are "much more loyal" and "more reliable."

"People living with a disability represent the largest, untapped human resources pool in Canada," Susan Howatt, chair of JOIN Toronto, told a one-day conference on the subject earlier this month. "Outdated stigmas are still the No. 1 barrier to jobs."

Indeed, statistics show employees with disabilities are high performers, says Erickson. "They are good at their jobs and they show loyalty. There's a low turnover rate; they stick with you."

The key is to "demystify the myths and build a culture of inclusion," says Cory Garlough, vice-president of global employment strategies at Scotiabank, one of JOIN's supporters.

His bank practises what it preaches by offering managers guides on how to make the workplace inclusive. "We make it part of management training," Garlough says. "We emphasize that it's about being authentic while respecting each other. And it's okay to ask questions."

Not only okay, but imperative to be able to speak your mind about legitimate concerns. Which brings us back to the fictional Dr. Bennett and Private Practice's good hiring practices. Michael Patrick Thornton, the actor who plays the man in the wheelchair, is himself in a wheelchair.

For more information on JOIN, go to www.joininfo.ca.

helenhenderson @ sympatico.ca

Reprinted from the Toronto Star, November 14, 2009, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

Photo: Michael Patrick Thornton plays Dr. Gabriel Fife in TV show Private Practice

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